Wednesday 9 December 2015
[Albert Owen in the Chair]
Exotic Pets Trade
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the exotic pets trade.
I pay tribute to a number of organisations that have been active on this agenda: the Born Free Foundation, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the Blue Cross and the British Veterinary Association. The other day I was fortunate enough to attend with a number of colleagues an excellent drop-in event in the House organised by Born Free as it launched its campaign to raise awareness of the problem of the trade in exotic pets. It also came up with some recommendations. I have several questions to ask. Is there a problem with the trade and the keeping of exotic pets? Is the current law adequate? What can be done?
An exotic pet is a rare or unusual animal that is generally thought of as a wild species and is not typically kept as a pet in a domestic context. According to the animal welfare charity OneKind, 1,000 different species of mammals, birds, invertebrates, reptiles and amphibians, and more than 150 different fish species, are kept as pets. There are many examples that colleagues will know about, including boa constrictors, numerous amphibians, primates, anacondas and African pygmy hedgehogs. The list goes on and on.
The Pet Food Manufacturers Association estimates that the exotic pet population in the UK, including fish, now totals 42 million, which is absolutely staggering; the number of reptiles and amphibians alone kept in this country is now anywhere between 2 million and 7 million. A lot of the huge increase in the numbers has been brought about by the phenomenon of internet sales, which I will come on to in a moment. First, I want to consider welfare concerns. Exotic animals have not undergone the same process of domestication that dogs, cats and many other conventional pets have.
I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for allowing me to intervene so early in his remarks. Does he agree that a lot of people purchase exotic pets without proper research and with no understanding of their complex needs, and that those pets are then abandoned because people cannot cope with them?
There has been a staggering 24% increase in the number of abandoned pets in the past five years. Does my hon. Friend think that might be related to the buying of exotic pets online, because people subsequently find that they are unsuitable for their homes and do not know how to look after them?
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for that point. I am going to talk about abandoned pets in a moment, because that is one of the really big problems; I am also going to talk about biodiversity.
Two examples were brought to my attention by Born Free. A badly neglected African pygmy hedgehog was disposed like rubbish in a wet cardboard box somewhere in London and had to be rescued and taken to an animal hospital. There is also the case of the two bearded dragons found abandoned in a London cemetery. What often happens is that the pets—they are perhaps given for Christmas, and the children are very excited—become difficult to manage and are, inexcusably, abandoned. I ask the Minister what more can be done to ensure that officials in local authorities and other organisations are properly trained to deal with abandoned pets.
The welfare concerns need to be examined in more detail. We have to remember that the needs of such pets are challenging. Some of their needs are linked to certain environmental conditions that can be difficult to replicate in a domestic environment. Many animals need larger enclosures, a carefully controlled environment and specific levels of heat, light and ultraviolet light; otherwise, they might become ill. They also need to be allowed to exhibit natural behaviours such as burrowing, climbing and basking. Often, if they are not able to follow those natural instincts, they become aggressive and might even pick up diseases.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who is very knowledgeable about primates; I understand that there is a reserve for abandoned primates in her constituency. I agree with her 100%. I will talk about primates, which often have small bodies but large brains, in a moment; they are, by definition, highly intelligent animals.
There has been a big increase in the number of complaints about welfare issues regarding exotic pets.
I, too, went to the launch that my hon. Friend attended. We were told that some of the animals can pass on diseases to human beings—it is called zoonosis. That is a real danger, and it has all happened since the legislation was introduced in the 1950s. Everything has changed, and we are not covered for it. The situation presents something of a danger.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Some 70 pet-linked human diseases have been identified by various medical organisations, which is obviously a serious worry that I hope the Minister will comment on in his winding-up speech.
The ease of availability is closely linked to welfare concerns. Those of us who have children know that if someone goes to a pet shop such as Pets At Home—my son, who is now 16, used to go there to buy goldfish, hamsters and other things—they are given a great deal of advice about what to do. On occasion, my son was not allowed to go away with a goldfish or a hamster because the staff were not convinced that we had the right facilities at home. It is concerning that only 5% of the trade in puppies—I know that they are not exotic, but this is an indication of how the trade that goes through pet shops has declined—is now channelled through licensed pet shops.
If someone goes into a pet shop they can get all the advice they could possibly want, but buying on the internet is a very different matter. The Born Free Foundation carried out a survey called “One Click Away”, which looked at nearly 2,000 adverts from six different websites over a number of months. At any one moment, across those six websites, the total number of adverts selling exotic animals was thought to be about 25,000. The majority—about 52%—of the adverts were for reptiles, but 21% were for primates, many of which, as my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall (Mrs Murray) pointed out, are not suitable for a home environment. And so it goes on.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate on a subject that has not received the attention it deserves. He has come to a crucial part of his discourse. He is talking about internet transactions, which are escalating exponentially. Does he agree that we need to track down the sources from which people can very quickly —one click away—get primates and other exotic animals with very little information about how to look after them if and when they are successful in purchasing them?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that excellent intervention. He is absolutely right. Rather than commenting myself, I ask the Minister to address those points.
I asked Born Free to look at my home county of Norfolk to see what might be available online, and it discovered an internet advert stating
“bearded dragon no tank needed gone tonight”
with a price of £10. A bearded dragon is quite small, but down the road a female yellow anaconda was for sale with a “final reduction” price of £100. This anaconda is 7 feet long and would require a serious amount of space and care, and yet, as the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) points out, there is no screening or checking on the internet to see whether the buyer is first time or potentially unsuitable. Again in Norfolk, not very far away, a 6½-foot orange corn snake was for sale “in good health” and priced at £60 with a 4-foot fish tank. I do not know about the Minister, but I find that the idea of a 6½-foot corn snake living in a 4-foot tank is challenging. Perhaps he could comment on that. There are plenty of other examples of pets for sale—vast numbers.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch and Upminster (Dame Angela Watkinson) pointed out, primates can be highly intelligent and have much larger brains than most animals of the same size. They have complex language skills, show advanced learning, numerical ability and planning, and perform tactical social interactions. They are much more likely to suffer severely, both physically and psychologically, if they are not properly looked after. After all, they are used to social groups and having their natural needs attended to in the wild. In captivity, however, unless the owner has an exceptional amount of knowledge of the species, there can be many welfare issues, including, as my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall pointed out, bone disease, diabetes and psychological problems. I am not saying that we should put more emphasis on primates than other animals, but they must be considered carefully by the Minister, the shadow Minister and other colleagues.
Abandoned pets, as has already been mentioned in an intervention from my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow), are another issue. People often make impulse purchases, particularly given the ease of buying on the internet, and have completely unrealistic expectations about how easy it will be to manage an animal. Animals often get bigger and may develop psychological problems and become more aggressive, and thus more dangerous.
I referred to two cases of animal abandonment a moment ago—the pygmy hedgehog and the two bearded dragons—but abandonment and animal welfare are not the only concerns: there is also the possible impact on the local habitat. Coming from a rural farming background, the Minister will be well aware of several invasive species, ranging from non-native crayfish to muntjac deer to the mandarin duck, that have caused big challenges in this country. According to the British Veterinary Association, there are at least 51 types of released reptiles and amphibians in the London area alone. Those species could easily harbour a whole suite of novel pathogens that could impact on livestock and pet health—or indeed on human health, as my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane mentioned. The BVA has already identified 70 pet-linked human diseases.
We should also consider the impact of such animals being traded and captured on the local wild populations in other countries, some of which may be poor, developing nations that do not have the capacity to control or regulate the trade. There are already several examples of species being depleted, and far more research needs to be done on the origin of exotic pets to find ways of following the supply chain as they leave their countries and are traded into the developed world.
On that point, something else has come to light on which it would be interesting to get the Minister’s view. I do not believe that quarantine procedures are in place for many exotic species, so they can be brought in without controls by pet shops or internet providers to distribute here. They do not have to stay anywhere to be checked for diseases and all the rest of it.
That neatly leads me on to my next point. Is the law adequate? Let us first look at what the law says now. The overarching legislation is the Animal Welfare Act 2006, which imposes a legal responsibility on all pet owners to provide for their animal’s basic needs. With the vast numbers of animals around, however, how can the Act be policed except through whistleblowing or an inspector’s concerns about a particular family, perhaps based on information from neighbours? It is a good Act, but it needs to be complemented by other legislation. The selling by pet shops of exotic animals is regulated by the Pet Animals Act 1951, and I believe that sufficient controls are in place for how animals are looked after in pet shops. Mortality during transportation is a big issue, however.
Most pet shops, particularly stores such as Pets at Home, really pride themselves on finding out all the details of where pets originate from. For pets traded on the internet, however, there are no such constraints—it is basically a complete free-for-all. The 1951 Act regulates and controls licensed premises, but there are no controls for those who set up online as individuals trading perhaps one or two animals. If they do it on a regular basis, they can be asked to go through the licensing process, but that does not happen often.
What my hon. Friend is saying is very interesting and I thank him for giving way again. Many big stores such as Pets at Home have wonderful systems in place for licensing pets and giving advice, but many smaller ones have a different array of licences, so there is no evenness across the table. That needs to be looked at, as I think the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith), who is also on the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, would probably agree.
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point.
We have the Animal Welfare Act 2006 and the Dangerous Wild Animals Act 1976, which deal with a small percentage of the total number of animals that we are discussing. There is also the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, which gives protection to some native species that might once have been considered for keeping as exotic pets and prohibits the release of exotic species into the wild. The UK is also part of the Bern convention on the conservation of European wildlife and natural habitats and other similar EU statutes. A legislative framework is therefore in place, but are the Acts and conventions being properly implemented and adhered to? Will the Minister urgently review and update the Pet Animals Act 1951, which completely predates the large-scale sale of animals over the internet?
I understand that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has announced a review of all animal licensing to take place next year, so will the Minister consider the 1951 Act and the other legislation as part of that process? This is a big opportunity for the Government to get a grip on the matter, to seize the initiative and to get on the front foot and show that DEFRA, the lead Department, will work with other Departments to try to make a difference, because the law is out of date. I am certainly not part of the nanny-state tendency and do not want excessive regulation, but there is an argument for updating and making the existing legislation fit for purpose. I also ask the Minister to look at the training and capacity of local authority licensing officers to check whether they have the right processes in place.
We will be hearing from the spokesperson for the Scottish National party, the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown), but will the Minister work with the devolved Administrations to ensure an overall look at the issue throughout the UK? If the same review that is to take place under DEFRA also took place in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, that would be helpful.
There is cross-party support for and the momentum to get behind a DEFRA initiative, but it has to be the right initiative. We have seen a steady increase in the trade in exotic pets and a real decline in the standards of welfare in a minority of cases—the vast majority of pet and exotic pet owners look after their pets well and have high standards, but many do not. Given all the problems that flow from poor welfare, pet abandonment and everything to do with biodiversity and the impacts on habitats and human health, the time has come for the Government to act—and they would have the House’s support.
As always, Mr Owen, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. May I apologise in advance for being slightly under the weather and say that I might not be as energetic or as enthusiastic as normal?
I congratulate the hon. Member for North West Norfolk (Mr Bellingham) on securing the debate. His knowledge of the topic is impressive and he gave us a tour de force this morning. He set out clearly the scale and nature of the trade in exotic pets. As he pointed out, more than 1,000 species of animal are involved in the pet trade, with the evidence suggesting that more than 50% of pet shops sell exotic species of some sort, with 25% selling exotic amphibians, 25% selling exotic birds, mainly parrots, and 17% selling exotic mammals, such as raccoons and hedgehogs, as has been pointed out. Even worse, some 42% of pet shops sell exotic reptiles such as alligators, cobras, chameleons or endangered tortoises. It is also estimated, however, that a staggering 20% of calls to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals about reptiles are made because they are no longer wanted by their owner.
I want to provide some local context. In South Yorkshire we have 66 licensed pet shops. Recent research by Blue Cross and the Born Free Foundation shows that 25% of them sell reptiles of some sort, with many not even displaying information on what kind is being sold—which underlines perfectly the point made earlier. That is an important point, because if a shop does not know the species, it will not know how the pet should be looked after and will certainly not be able to tell the customer how to care for it.
Thirty per cent of pet shops in South Yorkshire also sell exotic birds, usually labelled simply as “parrots”. Even worse, one in five of the shops in South Yorkshire sells exotic mammals of some sort, with one even selling meerkats. Under no circumstances should meerkats ever be kept as pets, but that example typifies one of the major drivers at play in the trade, which is the role of fad and fashion in governing the decision to buy. To be frank, those individuals who want a meerkat should stick to collecting the stuffed toys on offer from Compare The Market and steer clear of the real thing.
What, in turn, drives buyers’ trends in the pet market? I suggest that one of the drivers is that people far too often see exotics as cute and cuddly. Most people, however, do not have the knowledge of the specialist requirements attached to looking after such animals, and the animals suffer as a result.
I have a lot of sympathy with the hon. Lady’s point, and I will say something about the role of education later in my speech.
We need to remember that many animals could be suffering from the trade, far more than we estimate. We are uncertain about the scale of the trade, so it is not even easy to estimate the degree of the problem.
Another concern highlighted by research is how little some local authorities are aware of the issue. One authority in South Yorkshire stated that it had no pet shops licensed to sell exotics, yet Blue Cross and Born Free found at least three pet shops in its area selling exotic birds, amphibians and reptiles. Under-resourced local authorities clearly face a considerable challenge when enforcing legislation on exotic pets.
Licensed pet shops are only the tip of the iceberg—a point powerfully made by the hon. Member for North West Norfolk. In South Yorkshire, as in other areas, the online trade is the growing forum for selling a wide variety of exotic pets, often unlicensed and illegally. For example, one advertisement was seen to be selling cornflakes. [Interruption.] I mean corn snakes—sorry, I said I wasn’t feeling well. Other ads were for royal pythons and, believe it or not, for a marmoset. Perhaps most shockingly, one advert in South Yorkshire was offering for sale two African grey parrots, exotic birds from the Congo region of central Africa that are designated as vulnerable by the IUCN—the International Union for Conservation of Nature—and should only be kept in captivity by experts and never as pets.
This debate is important and highlights an important and growing issue. If the Minister could address a few points in his response, that would be appreciated. First, does he agree that the Dangerous Wild Animals Act 1976 should be extended to cover pet shops? A seller of an exotic animal needing a licence would then have to state such a requirement to any buyer. Secondly, will he consider—this is the principal point made by the hon. Member for North West Norfolk—conducting a full review of the exotic pet trade, similar to the one promised by the Scottish Government? I know that a general review of animal licensing is on the way, but I wonder whether it is worth separating out the issue of exotic pets for special attention. Furthermore, does the Minister agree, thirdly, that part of that full review should consider the outdated Pet Animals Act 1951?
Fourthly, as I have highlighted, local authorities do not have the time, resources or guidance necessary to curb the sale of exotic animals. This is a problem that goes all the way across the licensing of animals for breeding and sale, including dogs and cats. Does the Minister agree, therefore, that local authorities should be given the resources to properly license and inspect pet shops to ensure compliance with existing legislation? Fifthly, does he agree—this is another point made earlier—that more needs to be done to educate the public about the husbandry needs of such animals, which can be difficult and expensive to satisfy in a home environment?
On more being done to educate wider society, does the hon. Lady agree that part of the problem is the novelty factor, which parents often inculcate in their children? They do not want to have just a goldfish, dog or cat; they want an increasingly outrageously exotic animal as a pet, which might be discarded in a matter of weeks.
I totally agree, and that is the point I made about the role of fad and fashion. I made the point about meerkats and tried to deal with it light-heartedly, but it is a serious point. Meerkats are not cuddly animals that can be kept easily in a home environment, but we see a growing trend for that kind of pet ownership, which is totally unacceptable. On a personal level—this is not a party political line—I think it is unacceptable that a wide range of exotic animals sold in pet shops should be sold to be kept in domestic environments. I do not understand why anyone would want to keep a pet snake or a pet spider.
I totally agree. I am pleased that a review of legislation on the licensing of the breeding and sale of animals is on the way, but that aspect of the trade needs to be looked at carefully. Public safety ramifications that go beyond the Animal Welfare Act need to be looked at as well and given a bit of separate attention.
Pets are not a fashion accessory and should not be exposed to the throwaway culture of modern fashion. Some animals should not be kept as pets at all. Blue Cross and Born Free, in their “One Click Away” campaign, want to see a ban on keeping primates as pets. This is a bit of an old chestnut, but does the Minister agree that primates should not be kept as household pets?
Pet shops sell exotic animals to meet a demand and because of the high profits to be had by so doing. There is nothing wrong with making money, but we must be careful and make sure that animal welfare is not compromised in the process of making a living. In many cases, animals may not be dangerous or endangered. It is not illegal to own exotic pets, but even if it is not illegal, in some cases the trade drives habitat destruction and the extinction of animals in the wild. That cannot be right or good for the species involved, nor is it possible to meet the welfare needs of exotic pets in a domestic environment.
I thank Blue Cross and Born Free for their campaigning work, which has been invaluable and should be commended. I for one appreciate all they do in highlighting this and many other animal welfare issues. I know that the Minister is a reasonable man and he is very competent, so I look forward to a full and thorough response to the points raised in the debate.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale) on securing the debate. He is on urgent Council of Europe business this morning, but I will tell him that my hon. Friend the Member for North West Norfolk (Mr Bellingham) ably moved the motion in his place.
I do not mean to chastise my hon. Friend, but throughout my time in Parliament I have consistently raised issues concerning animal welfare. Therefore, if anyone has any time to spare, they will see in Hansard that everything that has been said this morning I have said before. Indeed, in 2002, together with Ann Widdecombe—I am still a Member of this place; Ann Widdecombe is appearing in pantomime in Windsor and doing a good job, but she is here with me in spirit—I introduced a Bill to protect endangered species. Indeed, we got Brigitte Bardot involved in the campaign, but even that did not do any good.
I therefore say to the Minister that there is no point in having debates where we feel good at the end but nothing happens. I want a slightly better answer from him, in terms of how his civil servants brief him, than the one I got from my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon), who was the Minister in 2012 and doing a splendid job. I am very much in favour of Ministers saying, “Yes, we can do this,” and standing up to the advice they are given.
None of these issues is original. The dramatic change is the power of the internet. We have all just fought general election campaigns, where we go canvassing. When I knocked on one door, I saw a cat with spots and thought, “My goodness—now they are keeping leopards.” Over the years, the Amess household has kept all sorts of animals—we have drawn the line at giraffes because we do not have ceilings high enough for them—but my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall (Mrs Murray) will be aware that, in September, I inaugurated the Westminster responsible pet ownership competition. The point of that was that owning a pet is a big responsibility. I understand how the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) feels on this issue.
We all know that small animals are cute. Puppies are cute and a little alligator, 6 inches long, looks cute, but then it grows. The level of irresponsibility of the people buying these pets is absolutely ridiculous. That is why, over the years and with other colleagues who have been consistently interested in animal welfare issues, I have tried to change things.
My hon. Friend is entirely right. My hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall and I recently returned from a trip to Cyprus, where my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) and I were presented with two common tortoises called Fama and Gusta. However, because of certain issues, those two tortoises, which we wanted to rescue, are still on the beautiful island of Cyprus and, under the arrangements in place, we would have had to get a mortgage out on the Palace of Westminster to bring them back. I have contacted the Minister for Tourism in Cyprus to see if some kind carrier could do us a favour, so that at least my hon. Friend could have a happy Christmas with his family by rescuing the two tortoises.
I have proposed and supported many early-day motions concerning animal welfare legislation. Indeed, the Protection against Cruel Tethering Act 1988, which was in my name, was on the statute book. I have tried to do something about the Pet Animals Act 1951, dogs Acts and other matters.
Recently, Southend Cats Protection came to my surgery and drew my attention to exotic cats. I was informed that over recent years ownership of new, exotic cats has become popular, including bengals, savannahs and chausie ocicats, which have become widely available on the internet —I say to my hon. Friend the Member for North West Norfolk that the power of the internet has changed things—and while many come from registered, reputable breeders, many others put profit before the animal’s welfare and, on the cat’s looks, sell them, with no checks made, to unsuspecting buyers who are unaware of the high maintenance involved.
Those breeds are demanding and require much human interaction. They need a lot of daily exercise and a large territory, including places for vertical climbing. I assume they do not just go up curtains—perhaps they try to walk on the ceiling. They often like to play with water, so they must be in their element at the moment. They have a high prey drive and, while many will get on well with dogs, they are often cat-aggressive and will actively seek out neighbouring cats to hurt to maintain their territory. My constituent explained how the cats can become destructive through boredom and can respond aggressively to being disciplined or handled. There are common reasons for those cats to be relinquished and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch and Upminster (Dame Angela Watkinson) said, rescue charities are increasingly being asked to take them. Given the traits of these cats, however, charities cannot accept them, because they cannot meet their needs. These cats are very expensive to maintain.
Over the years, I have kept many birds—of the feathered variety. Many people keep birds—budgerigars, canaries and a number of common parrots—in captivity as companion animals, and I am very comfortable with that. However, the majority of birds imported through Heathrow airport come from places such as South Africa, South America, Singapore and the Czech Republic. It is absolutely ridiculous to bring back humming birds, given the cruelty involved in netting them. A large range of species, including macaws, lovebirds, toucans and birds of prey, are kept. The number of species is estimated to approach 1,000. Many of those species are now kept in the UK, and that is very cruel—these birds are taken out of their natural habitat, and they are not well looked after in captivity.
The RSPCA does a splendid job—I might be slightly critical of its ever-changing management, but its ordinary members do a splendid job. However, it certainly supports my concerns about the keeping of exotic birds. It recently reported that 80 dead exotic birds were found at the bottom of a cage they shared with a boa constrictor—a boa constrictor for goodness’ sake! Many of the other birds in the cage were on the verge of death. Of the 80 dead birds, two were zebra finches—I know they are fairly common—and one was a bronze-winged mannikin, which had died as a result of head trauma after attempting to escape from the snake. The snake was curled up in the water bowl, so the birds were traumatised because they could not get anything to drink. During the inspection, budgerigars were also found to be suffering from skin complaints and a mite infestation.
I have touched on the ten-minute rule Bill I sought leave to introduce in 2002. In 2012, I asked the then Minister what plans he had to amend legislation such as the Pet Animals Act 1951. I think the civil service told him to say there was no requirement to change the legislation, but that is ridiculous—that is not a good enough answer. In 1983, when I was first elected to this place, and David Mellor was the lead Home Office Minister on this issue, we served on a Committee looking at a Bill—the first such Bill since 1911—to amend animal legislation. Furthermore, given what my hon. Friend the Member for North West Norfolk said about the power of the internet in this regard, we need to get up to speed.
I welcome the debate, but it should not just be a talking shop; we should change the legislation and make sure that any new legislation is actually enforced. It is Christmas, with the nativity and all of that, and this should be a happy season for not just human beings, but animals as well.
It is an absolute delight to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen. I congratulate the hon. Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale) on securing the debate. I also congratulate the hon. Member for North West Norfolk (Mr Bellingham) on his detailed and thorough speech.
It appears that exotic pets have been a feature in the UK since as early as the 13th century, with records from the time reportedly documenting that reptiles were kept in the Tower of London menagerie. However, over recent years the popularity of exotic pets has grown, and the range of species kept as pets has significantly increased. Animal charities have reported that the variety of exotic pets available outnumbers that of more traditional domesticated species, such as cats and dogs. Approximately 1,000 species of mammals, birds, invertebrates, reptiles and amphibians, and hundreds of fish species, are involved in the pet trade. The RSPCA has also highlighted the fact that trends in purchases of exotic pets are often associated with current crazes. For example, the increased demand for terrapins arose out of the popularity of the “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles”.
Many animal charities and professional bodies, such as the British Veterinary Association, have highlighted a number of concerns regarding the ownership of, and trade in, exotic pets. That has led to calls at EU level for new approaches. In Scotland, the Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs, Food and Environment, Richard Lochhead, has committed to a review of the trade in, and importation of, exotic animals for the pet trade in Scotland.
A key concern about the exotic pet trade relates to the animals’ welfare. These animals can be difficult to look after, and they can live for a long time and need extra, specialist care. Although many exotic pet owners are very experienced, knowledgeable and skilled in providing appropriate habitats and attending to their pets’ needs, animal charities highlight the fact that the increased availability of these animals on the internet and in pet shops means it is now easy for inexperienced people with little knowledge of an animal’s specific needs to purchase one as a pet.
In fact, the “One Click Away” investigation by Blue Cross and the Born Free Foundation found that, when these animals are purchased on the internet, the seller often provides little or no welfare information at the point of sale. It is also reported that high-quality care information can be hard to find. That impacts on the animals’ welfare and can lead to serious health concerns or even death. The specialist care required by these animals also means that vets often do not have the skills to deal with them when they become ill.
The easy availability of exotic pets to inexperienced owners can result in animals being given up or abandoned when they become difficult to look after, and there have been several such cases in Scotland. In one case, bearded dragons were discovered in supermarket toilets; in another case, a snake found its way into a legal office in Clydebank. Animal charities such as the Blue Cross and the RSPCA report that they are receiving an increased number of exotic pets into their care. However, that creates issues, as those organisations do not have adequate facilities to deal with exotic animals’ specialist needs at the scale that is now required.
Concerns have been raised about the lack of responsible sourcing in relation to these animals, and issues have been highlighted regarding the trade in reptiles and amphibians from the wild. The British Veterinary Association and the British Veterinary Zoological Society have reported that sourcing these animals from the wild can lead to a decline in their population; negative impacts on the ecosystem; stress for the animals as a result of being captured; poor acclimatisation; and high numbers of animal deaths due to the processes used during transportation.
Once in the UK, exotic animals also pose a potential threat to native species, habitats and the public if they escape or are deliberately released by their owners. It is reported that a number of exotic reptiles and amphibians have become established in other countries as invasive species, which has had significant impacts on native species and ecosystems. In addition, trade in wild-caught amphibians has spread diseases around the world, with devastating effects on amphibian populations. It is also highlighted that exotic pets can carry diseases that can be passed to humans.
Among the wide variety of exotic species for sale online, the “One Click Away” study found a number of potentially dangerous or venomous animals. When I worked in community mental health services, I went to the houses of a number of patients who were deemed to lack capacity and who required daily support, and I found that they had purchased snakes, lizards or various other animals, without any apparent knowledge or understanding of the specialist care those animals required or the capacity to provide it. Our team therefore had to rehome many exotic animals when patients were detained back into hospital. I am speaking from personal experience in urging the Minister to consider legislating on licensing.
Many owners of exotic pets are experienced, knowledgeable and skilled, as I have said, providing their pets with appropriate habitats and attending to their needs. There are groups of exotic pet enthusiasts and owners, such as the Reptile and Exotic Pet Trade Association and the Ornamental Aquatic Trade Association, which are concerned about the impact that reviews of the legislation could have on their hobby. They appear to be opposed to the introduction of bans. For those owners, the welfare of exotic animals is a paramount consideration. I accept that they are skilled in keeping exotic animals as pets.
It has been argued by members of the reptile industry that policies on the pet trade should be based on clear, robust science, and not on speculation, assumptions or prejudices; they have queried the reliability and quality of some research and views quoted by animal welfare groups and professional bodies. However, they have also quoted contradictory research such as undergraduate dissertations where there is not clarity as to the outcome, and where the views appear to be slanted or one-sided. Much more research—quantitative as well as qualitative—is needed, and the area in question would be a good starting point.
The legislation on the trade and importation of exotic animals as pets is currently being reviewed by the Scottish Government. It has been suggested that the UK Government’s recent announcement that they will review all animal licensing provides a good opportunity to consider issues relating to exotic pets in the UK, and I urge the Minister to take that forward. In doing so, it may be useful to consult relevant animal welfare groups, professional bodies and owner groups to ensure that all issues are fully considered. It is important that the legislative framework should be fit for purpose and capable of providing the best protection to the animals that are being bred, traded, imported and kept in the UK.
I have some concerns about public safety, particularly in relation to venomous snakes or other dangerous exotic pets that may be left, or lost down toilets. There are potential public safety issues, so it is essential that the existing Act be implemented. However, new legislation should also deal directly with the online sale of exotic pets, pet advertising and business registration and licensing. The Pet Animals Act 1951 should be reviewed. It was not configured to reflect increased interest in keeping exotic pets domestically. Extension or amendment of the Dangerous Wild Animals Act 1976 should also be considered. Owners of exotic pets should meet licensing criteria, which could be species-specific; work should be done on that.
I urge colleagues in the Scottish Government to ensure that their review is undertaken, and that stipulated guidelines will be enforced as a result. We want animal welfare provision across the UK. I would not like a situation in which legislation was implemented in one part of the UK but not in another, so that people who might not have animals’ best interests at heart would take them across the border.
I thank the Backbench Business Committee and my hon. Friend the Member for North West Norfolk (Mr Bellingham) in particular for securing the debate. I have heard many good contributions on various topics, including from the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) and my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess). I do not want to repeat what they have said, so I will concentrate on the subject of primates.
In 2010 I adopted a monkey named Donkey from the Wild Futures monkey sanctuary near Looe in my constituency. Donkey lives in the monkey sanctuary with other Barbary macaques like him. Unfortunately, he spent the start of his life as a circus performer after being taken from his family in the wild, in Morocco. He has very poor social skills and is underdeveloped for his age. Luckily for Donkey, charities such as Wild Futures exist to rehome animals like him that are not fit for domestic life.
In January 2012 I introduced a Bill to the House under the ten-minute rule, to prohibit the keeping of primates as pets in the United Kingdom. In my speech, I told the stories of three different monkeys, Joey, King Julien and Mikey, who between them had suffered fractures, hypothermia and disabilities owing to lack of sunlight and nutrition. Wild Futures monkey sanctuary is currently appealing for funds to build a rescue facility for marmosets, with the hope of building a £60,000 facility that will include indoor and outdoor enclosures large enough to accommodate marmosets in social groups. The charity has recently brought two marmosets to the establishment. One of them, Speedy, was left in a small empty birdcage while his owner worked overseas. He had a scrap of cloth to sleep on and his only diet was banana custard, which led to him developing hyperglycaemia.
The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals estimates that between 2,500 and 7,500 primates are kept as pets in the UK. Others suggest the number could be as high as 20,000. Because of the lack of registered breeders it is very difficult to come up with an exact figure. Sales of exotic animals on the internet are unregulated. Monkeys are being sold without any information on how to care for them and often with no information on the exact species. A person buying a pet without seeing it first is almost sure to put it up for sale or leave it abandoned. That is a huge strain on charities such as the Born Free Foundation and Blue Cross, which treat animals and species that some vets may never see, let alone treat. Veterinary help for monkeys is very hard to come by. They are more complex in their needs than domesticated animals such as cats and dogs, and require specialists. Often, the owners find the process too expensive or the monkeys do not make it to the arrival of the specialist—if a specialist is available.
Wild Futures monkey sanctuary currently houses 39 monkeys, most of which were purchased as exotic pets, but the number is growing constantly. Monkeys are quickly becoming a fashion accessory and we should not stand for that. I support the Born Free Foundation and Blue Cross in their call for a review of the Pet Animals Act 1951, but the legislation must take account of internet sales. I hope that the Act will be looked at during next year’s review by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs of all mammal licensing.
The Minister visited Wild Futures with me in the summer and he knows that the feeling there is that a ban is the answer to the problem of keeping primates as pets. The Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs produced a report on primates as pets in the previous Parliament, and one thing that we accepted was that if people have primates as pets now, the introduction of an immediate ban could exacerbate the problem. Perhaps the Minister would kindly consider the introduction of a ban and a licensing system, with a sunset clause, so that someone who has been keeping a primate responsibly can continue to do so, but so that eventually we will put an end to a trade that leads to primates being kept in unsuitable conditions.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen, and to speak on behalf of the Scottish National party. I thank the hon. Member for North West Norfolk (Mr Bellingham) for securing the debate.
We know that this might not seem such a big issue for some people, given what is going on in the wider world at the moment. Indeed, on a separate animal matter, I have been contacted by a constituent who was unhappy to read that Scottish soldiers and money were being utilised to protect elephants abroad, which illustrates that there is sometimes a bit of misunderstanding. Members have spoken powerfully today about the trade of exotic animals and the issue of keeping them as pets. For me, this subject feeds directly into the whole matter of protecting the earth and its inhabitants.
There is clearly cross-party support on this issue, certainly within the Chamber. I pay tribute to the contributions from my hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron), the hon. Members for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) and for South East Cornwall (Mrs Murray), and the hon. Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess), who made it clear he has long been an advocate on this issue. I pay tribute to the work he has done over the years.
Over the years, the world has become a smaller place, given that it is much cheaper to travel now. We have much greater linkage with various countries abroad. As we have heard, the internet allows greater connectivity and what is perceived to be an understanding of the wider world. Those two issues combined have allowed the growth of the exotic pet trade. Given those circumstances, it is logical to review existing legislation and the whole exotic pet trade.
As my hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow said, it is good to see the Scottish Government taking a lead on this issue. The Environment Secretary, Richard Lochhead, commissioned a review in February this year into the import of exotic pets. As the hon. Member for North West Norfolk said, the devolved Administrations and the UK Government can work together on this issue. I certainly look forward to hearing the Minister’s response to that and the other questions put to him.
I pay tribute to the people who campaign tirelessly on these matters and to organisations such as OneKind in Edinburgh. We heard about the Born Free Foundation and the Blue Cross, which are behind the “One Click Away” campaign. I agree with what some hon. Members said about the internet. One of the purposes of and problems with the internet is that people can make impulse purchases. We heard how films and fashion drive behaviours. Given what we have heard about horror purchases on the internet, there could also be a campaign called “Four Beers and One Click Away”, because we know it is too easy for someone on a Saturday night to get an idea, go on the internet and—lo and behold—purchase almost anything they want.
On a more serious matter, the main issues with keeping exotic pets are welfare and environmental concerns. While many animals might be covered under the convention on international trade in endangered species of wild fauna and flora, any exotic animals taken from the wild can impact on conservation. Human behaviour often drives people to desire to be ever more exclusive, and to do that, they crave even more exotic animals. I think it is fair to say that even the legal exotic pet trade can help to drive the illegal trade, as people seek to go one better and become more exclusive. That, of course, further endangers at-risk species.
As my hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow picked up on, we know that the removal of one species from the general food chain in the wild or their reduction within it has a direct impact on the environment they are native to, which leads to changes in the wider ecosystem of which those animals are a part. I recommend to hon. Members an excellent book I read over the summer, “Feral”, which illustrates very well how one animal can massively change the entire ecosystem.
We heard of the risk of transfer of disease and pathogens in general posed by the import of exotic animals, as well as the risk that those animals might be released into the wild. There is legislation that deals with the abandonment or release of non-native species, but it is none the less clear that a thriving exotic pet trade increases the risk of either accidental escapes or deliberate abandonment. Any escape risks local conservation measures and obviously has a possible impact on native flora and fauna. There have certainly been plenty of examples over the years of both flora and fauna non-native invasive species biding in the UK.
Abandonment poses potential dangers for the public, depending on which animal is abandoned. I would certainly not like to have been working in the legal office in Clydebank that a snake came into. It might also have put me off my shopping if I had gone to the shop’s toilet and found a bearded dragon. Other examples of escape or abandonment highlighted by the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals include five corn snakes, a 6-foot boa constrictor and a Chinese water dragon—that is just in the past year alone.
Another spin-off of the exotic pet trade discovered in Scotland was someone breeding rats for sale to snake owners. That unscrupulous rat breeder was keeping hundreds of rats in what was effectively a rabbit hutch. The rats were discovered because they were allowed to escape—another example that illustrates the wider public health issues that derive from the exotic pet trade either directly or indirectly.
As we have heard, animal husbandry is another concern. We know that exotic pets need to be suitably looked after in terms of their living conditions and food. In terms of these purchases being one click away, people can be tempted to buy unsuitable pets without having the skills and knowledge to look after them, and they certainly might not provide the right living conditions, in terms of cages or other equipment, to give the animals the lifestyle they need. We know that unscrupulous dealers unfortunately might not provide the same specialist advice as responsible pet shops, and nor are they likely to check the suitability of prospective owners, meaning animals are sold to people who should not have them and are then not looked after. Animal welfare is a key issue. When the prime motivation of the sale of animals is to make money, welfare might not be the No. 1 consideration, which leads to a spiral of decline in animal welfare.
In summary, we know that existing legislation can, in theory, cover many of the issues highlighted today. However, given that the Pet Animals Act in particular is more than 50 years old, as other Members have said, it is time for a review; I would like to hear the Minister’s response to that. As the hon. Member for Hornchurch and Upminster (Dame Angela Watkinson) said, we must ensure that buyers, as well as sellers, understand their responsibility.
It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen. I start by congratulating the hon. Member for North West Norfolk (Mr Bellingham) on opening this important debate. With the Government announcing the review of all animal licensing to take place next year, this debate is certainly timely. We have heard some interesting points, and I hope to add a little value to the debate, in which consensus has certainly broken out.
The hon. Gentleman made a strong and persuasive case that I am sure will go some way to convincing the Minister that more can, should and must be done to regulate the sale and keeping of exotic pets here in the UK. Like others, I would welcome the Minister’s confirmation that the Pet Animals Act 1951 will be included in the review, to bring the legislation into the 21st century.
As other Members have rightly highlighted, there is a growing trade in exotic animals, with traders knowing little, and buyers even less. My hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) told of the huge range of exotic pets on sale in south Yorkshire, where shopkeepers have no knowledge of or information about them. That example, in itself, surely makes the case for change. The hon. Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess) mentioned a number of horror stories. He made me jealous when he told us he had worked with Brigitte Bardot, but even she could not change things as far as legislation in this area is concerned. I am sure the Minister agrees that we do not need any more glamour to achieve change.
The hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) talked about the pressures that can be put on families through such things as “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles”, which can drive the demand for a particular species without people thinking about the animal’s needs. Children would be horrified if they realised that the pet that they are keeping is suffering, when actually, it is an illustration of their heroes. It is important that children understand a little more about that.
The hon. Member for South East Cornwall (Mrs Murray) said that the best way to have an interest in an exotic animal was by sponsoring one in a sanctuary. She also raised the issue of specialist vets not being available to deal with such animals when they become ill.
Regrettably, although the keeping of dangerous wild animals as pets is regulated by the Dangerous Wild Animals Act 1976 and the selling by pet shops of exotic animals as pets is regulated by the Pet Animals Act 1951, there are no detailed controls on the keeping of non-dangerous exotic animals as pets. Partially as a result of that regulatory uncertainty, the range of exotic animals and birds being kept as pets has expanded substantially in recent years, with increasing numbers of people choosing to buy lesser known species that are deemed more desirable, and maybe even more fashionable, which is a point that was raised earlier. Unfortunately, from a welfare perspective at least, that includes some species that are simply unsuitable for that purpose.
Reptiles are a case in point. The hon. Member for North West Norfolk told us of the Born Free and Blue Cross report, “One Click Away”, which suggested that up to 7 million reptiles and amphibians are now being kept in the UK. We also heard of a sample studied by Born Free and Blue Cross, which discovered at least 53 different species of reptile, along with 37 types of exotic bird, 28 types of exotic mammal and seven types of amphibians advertised for sale over a three-month period and across several general selling websites.
Often, however, the decisions by the buyers are made on the hoof, perhaps at the behest of a child, with little consideration for the long-term implications of owning an exotic pet for which the novelty can soon wear off. At a recent Blue Cross event, I raised the need for education, which again, was raised my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge. I was talking about the need for children to understand in school what owning an exotic pet actually means. Children really do care and I think that if they understood a little more, perhaps the demand for exotic pets would be that little bit lower.
With many of these species having not undergone the same process of domestication as more familiar companion animals, such as dogs and cats, meeting their highly specialised welfare needs in a domestic environment can be very difficult. That is an important point. Domesticated livestock and companion animals are fundamentally different from their wild predecessors. The welfare needs of many exotic animals are extremely complicated. They often have specific requirements in terms of space, diet and environment, and very often those are difficult and expensive to meet within a home environment. The same holds true for the complex social, physical and behavioural needs of many exotic animals.
We have heard this morning that the unfortunate result is that many such impulse purchases end up being kept in poor conditions, contrary to the duties imposed by the Animal Welfare Act 2006 on owners to provide for an animal’s basic needs. I would welcome the Minister’s thoughts on how those regulations can be better enforced.
It is important to recognise that, when an exotic animal’s captive environment is unsuitable, a host of serious health problems can result, and we have heard many examples of those this morning. The 7 million reptiles that I mentioned just a moment ago, for instance, are known to suffer from a range of illnesses in captivity, including rickets, metabolic bone disease and digestive problems. With the advent—not to mention the rapid growth—of online selling, the internet has quickly become a hive of activity through which breeders, dealers and traders alike can advertise and sell a staggering array of pet animals with consummate ease.
Sadly, the ease of availability opens the door to many inexperienced owners, who can purchase exotic animals without being aware of their specific needs. That, ultimately, can feed into a cycle of maltreatment, and I look forward to hearing the Minister’s plans to ensure that this marketplace is properly and thoroughly regulated to minimise any such instances.
I am, indeed, aware that the Government have started to look at that area and have endorsed the Pet Advertising Advisory Group standards for online adverts. That move is certainly to be welcomed and represents an important step. There has been some success in improving online advertising standards among those signing up to the voluntary standards. However, critically, those standards are wholly voluntary and markedly less success has been had with the sites that are not signing up. Furthermore, compliance is, as a result, difficult to enforce.
The “One Click Away” report, which I referred to, illustrates that perfectly. By looking at a sample of almost 1,800 online classified adverts, animals considered particularly vulnerable to welfare problems in captivity, such as chameleons and iguanas, were found advertised for sale. The investigation also found that unsuitable animals, including potentially dangerous ones, were widely available for sale to the general public.
Worryingly, even primates featured on the list of species encountered. Between January 2008 and October 2012, monitoring by Born Free found 57 species of exotic mammals for sale, including 11 species of primates. The “One Click Away” report found 21 adverts selling primates, and I want to touch on that specific issue. Several animal welfare organisations are particularly concerned about that matter, and I share those worries. The RSPCA, for instance, has voiced its belief that primates are never suitable pets and tend to suffer disproportionately in a domestic environment. Blue Cross and Born Free would also support a ban on their keeping as pets.
Let us not forget that primates are highly intelligent mammals, with a range of complex needs. Many demonstrate complex language skills, use tools, show advanced learning, numerical ability and planning, as well as performing tactical social interactions. Some are also capable of human-like emotion, which adds another sensitive dimension to those considerations. However, that enhanced capacity for intelligence and awareness means that primates are also more disposed to suffer in captivity than many other animals. To maintain high welfare standards, both physical and psychological health must be safeguarded, entailing being kept in social groups in specially designed indoor and outdoor facilities, yet I understand that the RSPCA commonly finds primates kept as pets in birdcages, on their own, in people’s living rooms. Owners, worryingly, lack even the basic knowledge and understanding of the species that they own. Clearly, that can have serious welfare implications and can lead to such conditions as bone diseases and diabetes, not to mention psychological symptoms such as self-mutilation, depression and hair plucking.
Speakers this morning have given the Minister much to think about, and I look forward to his explaining to us how we can achieve higher standards and better enforcement.
May I begin by drawing Members’ attention to my declaration of ministerial interest, Mr Owen? The World Parrot Trust—a fabulous charity that does work in 40 countries around the world, particularly targeting the illegal pet trade and the illegal trapping of exotic birds—is based in my constituency, and I have always supported their work.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for North West Norfolk (Mr Bellingham) for introducing this debate on what is clearly an important topic. We have had many informed contributions to the debate.
I want to start by saying a bit about the scale of the issue. Although no precise figures are available and estimates vary, according to the Pet Food Manufacturers’ Association, about 1.3 million amphibians and reptiles are being kept as pets in the UK today. That is made up of about 400,000 lizards, 400,000 snakes, 300,000 tortoises and turtles, 100,000 frogs and toads and 100,000 newts and salamanders. There are other estimates, which some hon. Members have alluded to, that put the numbers of reptiles and amphibians in this country at up to 7 million. However, of those amphibians and reptiles, it is estimated that about 70% are made up of only six species: the bearded dragon, the crested gecko, the leopard gecko, the corn snake, the royal python and Hermann’s tortoise.
We can compare those numbers to those of more familiar pets: we have around 8.5 million cats and dogs, 40 million fish, 1 million rabbits and 1 million caged birds. Whether it is 1.3 million or 7 million, the issue is clearly important and I am aware of the many concerns that have been raised with me.
A number of hon. Members have pointed out that some of these animals can be dangerous to people and our native wildlife if not kept or controlled appropriately, and that they can carry diseases sometimes transmissible to humans.
An important element of this debate is responsible ownership. Responsible owners will take care to understand what is needed to look after their animals before they purchase them, and find out where best to source their animals and what restrictions may apply to their keeping. The veterinary profession is particularly well placed to educate owners. They see animals that might show signs that the environment or enclosure they are kept in are inappropriate. Vets can also help in educating owners about the best way of keeping their pets or rehoming them if they do not have the correct facilities. Pet shop owners also have a role in educating owners and advising on suitable pets for the buyer. Some exotic species need specialist care, as hon. Members have pointed out, and pet shop owners should ensure that such animals are sold only to those able to look after them properly.
We have made some progress. Just last week, with the assistance and support of DEFRA, the Companion Animal Sector Council—a group of organisations representing businesses and keepers—met other interested parties, including the veterinary profession and key NGOs, to discuss how to improve the sale and welfare standards of kept companion animals, including exotics. Among the recommendations from the meeting was the need to educate owners and prospective owners, as well as others, on the keeping of these animals, particularly exotic species. To help to address that, the meeting also agreed to formalise care sheets to be available on all the organisations’ websites.
Earlier this year, various trade associations and veterinary experts came together to produce new and up-to-date good practice guidelines for the welfare of privately kept reptiles and amphibians with advisory care sheets for the six most commonly kept reptile species. I will return to those care sheets and codes.
A number of hon. Members have referred to the internet, which is a vital issue. On one level, we could say that it is just a modern way of classifieds. We have always had classified ads in newspapers and we now have them online. However, the internet has made such issues far more challenging. That is why, a couple of years ago, we established a code with the Pet Advertising Advisory Group. I met the group just two weeks ago for an update on progress.
The code contains 18 requirements. There are automated checks for blacklisted words so if bad owners advertise dogs for dog fighting and so on the ads are automatically removed and banned. It requires a photo of the animal being sold. There is a three-strikes-and-you’re-out rule, and if people put up inappropriate ads they are blocked altogether from advertising on those sites. When a licence is required, they must have it and print the details in the advert. There is a ban on the sale of invertebrates and advertising them for sale through the post. Believe it or not, although it was not mentioned today, that was happening. Specific to primates, there is an outright ban on advertising them under the code.
I am grateful to the Minister for covering that point, and the oversight of people who sell on the internet. What will he do about welfare during transportation and delivery of exotic animals that have been sold online—anaconda, corn snake, and reptiles and so on—so that when they are sold and a contract is struck, transportation is safe and secure for the animal and meets high standards? What will be done to sort that out and to police it?
We must draw a distinction. Internet providers can deal only with the type of advert being posted and there is a ban on advertising transport through the post. A range of EU and domestic regulations are in place covering transportation and the Animal Welfare Act 2006 has a role in that.
I want to move on because of the time. The six organisations that have signed up are Epupz, Friday-Ad, Gumtree, Pets for Homes, Preloved and Vivastreet. Good progress has been made since we launched this initiative with the help of volunteers from NGOs, and 130,000 inappropriate adverts have been removed. At the meeting with some of the advertisers last week, Gumtree, for example, reported that the number of pets advertised on its website has gone down by 80% over three years. That is a significant change. When there are high-velocity sales with people advertising puppies and pets, they are automatically blocked and the advertiser’s details are forwarded to the advisory group so that other enforcement action can be taken. Both Preloved and Gumtree now send people automatic notification—Gumtree by email and Preloved on its website—with information about responsible ownership and responsible buying. Some good progress has been made.
Licensing is crucial and a number of hon. Members alluded to that. There is a need to review all animal establishment licensing. We have a hotchpotch of different laws, most of which date from the 1950s and 1960s, covering a range of options. We are working on a review of that and I hope to go to consultation imminently. Many hon. Members asked whether it will include a review of the Pet Animals Act 1951. My hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess) said that I should stand up to officials. I always feel sorry for officials because they do not have voice at the Dispatch Box, so let me say that I am ably supported in this by some very talented officials behind me. The review will include that Act because although it has stood the test of time, it was designed in an era when the internet did not exist and it is important to review it to make sure it is clear. The law is already clear in that anyone trading on the internet must have a pet shop licence whether or not they have a pet shop in the high street.
The areas we want to cover include enforcement. I am keen to see whether we can make greater use of the UK accreditation scheme so that people who are registered with, for example, the Kennel Club, do not necessarily need a separate local authority licence. We should let local authorities focus on those who are outside a system at the moment. I am also keen to look at resource sharing. It would be possible, for example, for one or two local authorities to develop a specialism in exotic pets and to provide help to other local authorities. There are greater prospects for joint working.
Specifically on exotics, we are considering making it a requirement of having a licence that care sheets and information sheets are provided to owners before they are allowed to purchase pets. That would be a big step forward because, through the licensing and legislative process, there would be a requirement for that information to be given. We are also considering whether we can have a more risk-based approach.
Next year, we will review the code for primates. I had a delightful visit to Wild Futures in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall (Mrs Murray). It does fantastic work. Our view is that it would already be a clear breach of the Animal Welfare Act 2006 for anyone to have a primate in a domestic setting. There are private keepers who can provide the needs of primates, and I am open to looking further into some of the points she made.
My final point relates to the legislation on importing and exporting. Exotic animals imported into the UK are subject to import controls to prevent the introduction of disease to this country. Imported reptiles and snakes do not need to be accompanied by a health certificate, but a certificate must be completed by the competent authority of the exporting country for exotic birds. What is crucial is that all animals imported to the UK from a third country must be presented at a border inspection post and subjected to a veterinary and documentary check by the Animal and Plant Health Agency. Additional controls for many exotic species are provided through CITES—the convention on international trade in endangered species—and include around 35,000 species.
In conclusion, we have had a very good debate. I hope that hon. Members with a clear interest in the matter will contribute to the consultation when we launch it, hopefully in the new year. The matter is vital. I am passionate about it and want to sort it out. I believe we can improve the licensing system both in the way we approach the laws of licensing and in the way they are enforced.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the exotic pets trade.
UK Tourism after the Paris Attacks
I beg to move,
That this House has considered tourism in the UK after the Paris attacks.
I am very grateful for this chance to raise an issue of huge importance to my constituency and the United Kingdom. I am delighted that my good friend the Minister will respond to the debate. Everyone in the House will wish her and her family well and all peace and happiness for the future. Her forthcoming break from the political arena will be sad for the rest of us, but an absolute joy for her. I know, because I have three children, that it will also be an awful lot of hard work. If she ever fancies a change or a breath of fresh air, I can think of no better thing for her to do than to come down to Bridgwater and West Somerset and enjoy the delights of Exmoor—it is very good for young lungs.
Encouraging tourism is what this short debate is about. The industry is vital to the UK; tourism is growing faster than any other sector in the country. It employs well over 3 million people and, according to the latest figures, it earns £130 billion a year. That is 9% of the UK’s GDP. It is possible that 10 years from now, tourism will be bringing in £300 billion-worth of dollars, euros and yen every year. However, I emphasise the word “possible”. British tourism has massively upped its game in recent times. I can speak only for Somerset, but I know that down there we offer the best these days. However, there are still unpredictable risks that can undermine consumer confidence and pull the plug on prosperity overnight, which is why the appalling carnage in Paris just over three weeks ago is very relevant to the debate.
By coincidence, I spent the weekend and a lot of last week in Paris as a delegate to the international climate change conference. That long planned event involving the leaders of 147 countries was always going to be a security headache. What happened in the city on the grim night of 13 November dramatically altered the landscape. It is a massive tribute to French resilience that the climate change conference went ahead and will, I think, achieve so much.
By contrast, France has suffered badly in the aftermath of the ghastly terrorist attacks. As you know, Mr Owen, Paris is a wonderful city, but terrorism has wreaked havoc on its tourist trade. It is estimated that cancelled bookings and reduced visitor numbers have already cost the French economy about £1.5 billion. When Brussels was locked down while the police searched for the Paris terrorists, it cost that city a hefty £35 million a day in lost trade.
Fear, as we know, can be a cruel weapon. It respects no laws and undermines confidence—and, as we have seen here, it feeds on itself. Fear can all too easily stop tourists in their tracks. That is perfectly understandable: no one will want to put themselves or their family at risk when they embark on a vacation anywhere in the world. I fully appreciate that the remedy for fear is extremely hard, if not impossible, to find and is well beyond the power of any ministerial brief. We cannot expel it. We cannot legislate against it, and we cannot at the moment control it. However, we can perhaps do a little more to persuade the wider audience of potential visitors that, whatever they may have heard or read about the risks of terrorism, Britain remains open for business.
I have some relevant experience of the need to counter fear. Two years ago, a large part of my constituency began to sink under the most appalling floods for 200 years—given the events of recent days, I send my condolences to our friends in the north. The damage was horrendous. The human toll was also high: many people were forced to abandon their homes as the waters rose. It was shocking and desperately sad, so I greatly sympathise with those in Cumbria who have been similarly affected. Flooding on that scale is a nightmare. It has taken two years for those parts of Somerset to recover. It took an enormous push from Somerset’s tourism industry to persuade visitors to stay with us or book to return.
The trouble with fear is that it is easily exaggerated. People saw aerial photographs of flooded homes and assumed that the whole county was underwater. In fact, if one drove down the M5, one would hardly notice anything. Most people were going to work, going to school and generally getting on with their lives. There was food in the shops and a welcome at the local pub. Somerset did not grind to a halt, and neither will Cumbria. However, we all have to work extremely hard to get that message across.
I admit that I was slightly apprehensive when travelling to Paris the other day. Like everyone else, I had been glued to the news and shocked by what I saw. To my relief, Paris was operating normally. There were more police on the streets, obviously, but the buzzing stylish city was there; its heart was beating strongly. Parisians are already learning how to come to terms with what happened, as we did some years ago. For potential visitors, that process takes much longer.
We all know that terrorism never has respected and never will respect national boundaries. America has just suffered the San Bernardino shootings, inspired by the same twisted beliefs as were behind the Paris attacks. There was also the knife attacker on the London tube a few days ago. Those events remind us all of the risks, but the bigger the atrocity, the greater the impact on tourism—that is now a genuine danger. It would be surprising if the Paris massacre had no adverse effect on American tourists in the future. I would hazard a guess that if someone who lives in Minnesota is thinking about “seeing Europe”, as Americans do, they might well pick Rome, London, Venice or Berlin, but they will probably not pick Paris at the moment.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on initiating this debate on a very important topic. Does he agree that the data and evidence on the time taken to recover from major terrorist attacks and events such as those that he mentioned in his constituency vary—there is some inconsistency? Data on the London attacks in 2005 suggest that London recovered very quickly; in fact, there was an increase in tourist numbers in 2006. Similarly, after the Madrid bombings, domestic and international tourism recovered quite quickly. Unfortunately, I am hearing evidence from UKinbound and others that—
My hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire (Nigel Huddleston) makes a very good point and his statistics are absolutely right. The problem is that we can never be complacent. Having been an MP for 15 years and dealt with flooding and other problems in my constituency, I know well what the effects can be. My hon. Friend was absolutely right to mention the attacks in London some years ago. They did affect the city; there was no way to get around that. However, we recovered very quickly. There was good leadership from the centre. That rippled out across London and the United Kingdom, and we were able to recover to the position where we were before. But it is right to say that that took time.
The problem with all this is that if we are complacent, we will miss the chance. We are in the middle of the Christmas period. In tourist terms—dare I say it?—spring and summer are already here, because holidays are being sold, so we must take this issue seriously. That is why it is timely that the Minister is here to respond to the debate and explain where we are going on this issue for the future. I am glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire is here and am very grateful for his input.
What should we do to protect our vital flow of visitors? Of course, there is a powerful domestic message for British holidaymakers who might be thinking of booking a foreign summer break. We should tell them to consider Britain first, to discover what we have at home and to spend—dare I say it?—pounds, not euros. A bit of national spirit would help us all.
I am pretty sure that the Minister will want to draw attention to the new Discover England fund, announced by our right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer in the autumn statement. That is a lot of money—£40 million—and it will be deliberately targeted to back up the Government’s new five-point plan for tourism. Everyone I have spoken to in tourism is optimistic about the generous injection of money and the basic ideals of the tourism plan. If there is any anxiety, it is more about the difficulty of enabling a large and diverse industry to speak with one voice, which I think is probably what my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire was talking about.
I notice, for example, that a collaborative body called the Tourism Industry Council has been created to improve the relationship between the industry and Government. That has to be welcome; it is a good idea, but I did not realise quite how many people are involved. There appear to be—I know that the Minister will correct me immediately if this is wrong—25 different tourist organisations represented. I say gently to the Minister that that is bigger than the Prime Minister’s Cabinet; the cost in coffee and biscuits alone must be positively frightening. So many strange-sounding organisations are involved, and the general public are probably not even aware that half of them exist.
We have probably all heard of VisitBritain and VisitEngland, the two big outfits that help to promote all our brands. I did not know, however, that there was a British Association of Leisure Parks, Piers and Attractions —I trust that that has nothing to do with Piers Morgan—nor was I familiar with the Association of Leading Visitor Attractions, let alone the Tourism Society, which is not to be confused with the Tourism Alliance, UKinbound or even the British Hospitality Association.
There is an association for pretty well every different discipline. Bed and breakfast? Yes, they have one. Travel agents? They have another one. Pubs? Naturally; they are a British institution. Those organisations are all different, with different memberships, different ideas and —guess what?—different leaders. I had come across People First, a training body for the catering industry, but did you know, Mr Owen, that there is even a National Coastal Tourism Academy? We must sign up immediately.
London seems to have at least two seats on the Tourism Industry Council, held by a promotional group called London First and the Association of Professional Tourist Guides, most of whom work in London. The other specific regional representative appears to be West Dorset Leisure Holidays, a company that runs holiday parks in west Dorset. Fine—not a problem, but it is an awful lot of people. I am sure that West Dorset Leisure Holidays does its job well, but I have to wonder how it came to sit on the national Tourism Industry Council in the first place. West Dorset is a lovely place, but so is West Somerset, and for the same reasons. I am slightly biased, but I think that West Somerset is much lovelier.
My point is this. How on earth can we expect a council with so many members from so many different corners of the tourism trade to come up with coherent ideas? I know that it was the Government’s ambition to streamline the Tourism Industry Council; I accept that. I suspect that that is still a work in progress, and I am sure the Minister will wish to bring us up to date on it.
We are extremely fortunate in this country. We can offer a rich history, amazing scenery and an unrivalled welcome—and nowhere more so than in Somerset. It is no accident that tourists from faraway places have chosen to make the journey to this country in increasing numbers. Last year, 100,000 more visitors came to spend time with us. They dug deep into their pockets and helped the west country economy by more than £500,000. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will agree with me that the best way to ensure that our visitor numbers stay buoyant is to be buoyant. We need to talk up tourism and ensure that everyone everywhere gets the message that we are ready, willing and able—but much more importantly, we are open, so come over and enjoy.
We face a challenge over the Christmas period. The spending power of people in London—my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire was right to mention London—is enormous. Any change at Christmas hits the retail trade, and also the autumn and spring trade. I am not a great shopper, but I have noticed that there are sales going on in London already. When that happens, it tends to mean that there are problems in the retail trade. I know that the Minister is aware of that, and I am sure that she will respond.
Thank you for those kind words, Mr Owen. As always, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset (Mr Liddell-Grainger) for raising this important subject and giving me a chance to update the House on the state of the tourism sector following the tragic events in Paris last month. I thank you, Mr Owen, and my hon. Friend for your kind wishes for the future.
Let me start by extending my deepest condolences to those affected by the attacks, and to the city of Paris. In France, a state of emergency has been confirmed for three months, and we understand how worrying that must be, not only for all those who live and work in the city, but for the Parisian tourism sector. We live in extremely dangerous times, but we in this country, and particularly in London, have faced such threats before. Our experience demonstrates the resilience of the nation, its workers and, of course, the tourism sector, when we stand together, as we must, to manage those threats.
After the tragedy of the London bombings 10 years ago, the capital’s attractions reported a 25% drop in visitor numbers. Just 12 months later, however, data showed that visitor numbers had bounced back and even outstripped the previous year’s figures. To pick up on the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire (Nigel Huddleston), I want to clarify the statistics and counsel caution. The statistics from UKinbound are anecdotal, and there will not be a proper survey until January. Although there has been a drop in the number of bookings from France, it was initially a consequence of the restrictions on travel, particularly for school groups—those restrictions were reciprocated, and our school groups did not visit France or Belgium—and those restrictions have now been lifted.
In the aftermath of 9/11, New York did not close to visitors; it reached out to them. I spoke to the Mayor of London yesterday, and he is confident—adamant, in fact—that the latest threats or incidents will not cause long-term damage to the tourism sector in our capital. As an avid shopper myself, let me reassure my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset that sales do take place in the run-up to Christmas. That is nothing unusual, and it is in no way a response to recent events.
Confidence in safety and security measures is key, but so are the spirit and determination of our tourism industry to continue to attract and welcome the millions of visitors who are interested in exploring all that our country has to offer inside and outside London. We understand, however, that the growth of the sector will be reliant on our continued vigilance in the face of the threat of terrorism. As my hon. Friend will know from the Home Secretary’s statement to the House on 16 November, strenuous efforts are being made to keep the public and visitors safe. The police have increased their presence in certain areas and locations, and they will be intensifying their approach at events in big cities. New funding has been made available for the security and intelligence agencies to help them to respond better to the threat we all face from international terrorism.
We are not complacent, however. We know that travellers remain cautious, and that there have been jitters in some markets. VisitBritain, the body charged with promoting Britain as a destination overseas, has asked its overseas offices to monitor consumer and trade sentiment following the Paris attacks and to feed back weekly. It regularly updates the tourism industry emergency response group, a small group of industry and government players who plan for crises in the tourism sector and manage the sector’s response to major events such as the Paris attacks.
If I may deviate for a second, Mr Owen, I would like to say that it is not just against terrorism that our industry needs to show resilience and determination. The devastating floods over the weekend hit one of our most beautiful destinations. I want to reassure the House that we will work with VisitEngland and VisitBritain to ensure that tourism to that region is supported and continues to deliver economic benefit. My hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset mentioned the flooding in his constituency. I hope that he, his local authority and all the tourism organisations in his area will share their experience with our friends in Cumbria.
We will continue to work here in the UK and with our overseas networks to communicate the steps that are being taken to keep the public and visitors safe, and to promote Britain as a great destination to visit. The UK has something to offer every type of traveller, and we want more people to visit and experience our way of life. As well as supporting jobs and growth, tourism is about connecting people and forging cultural links. The Government understand the vital role of tourism, which is why we launched a five-point plan for the sector during our first 100 days in power. That plan sets out the areas that we will prioritise to help the tourism sector to grow. Tourism is an engine of growth and a key industry, which supports almost one in 10 jobs in the UK.
When the Secretary of State and I were members of the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport, a key issue that struck us was how the fragmentation of the sector was holding it back. We seek to address that by strengthening the co-ordination of activity in support of the sector across Government and industry. The new inter-ministerial group on tourism, which has already met, and the refreshed Tourism Industry Council are key to that.
I want to address my hon. Friend’s concerns about the Tourism Industry Council. As he has said, the council exists to improve the direct representation between Government and industry, to ensure that the voice of the industry can be heard in Whitehall clearly, and vice versa.
The diverse membership of the council is one of its strengths. It is the chair of the council’s role to guide those disparate individuals and opinions to productive conclusions. I assure my hon. Friend that specific members of the council will be called on to address various concerns and topics. We have no intention of wasting busy people’s time when agenda items do not need specialist expertise, so we will call on members’ time in a proportionate way. An open, transparent and two-way dialogue is critical to making progress.
Across the world, the international trade in tourism has grown spectacularly over recent decades, with international tourism arrivals passing 1 billion for the first time in 2012 and set to reach 1.4 billion by 2020. The Government are determined to capitalise on these opportunities. We cannot and will not allow our industry to take a backseat to international competitors.
In my hon. Friend’s constituency, attractions such as the Walled Gardens of Cannington have the potential to attract visitors from near and far. As Tourism Minister, I am determined to ensure that the panoramic views of Somerset that those gardens provide are not only well promoted, but accessible and fully integrated into the local economy. Indeed, the aim of the £40 million Discover England fund announced in the spending review is to make it easier for all of us to explore England’s hidden gems.
The benefits of tourism run much deeper than economics. By attracting tourists to the UK, we are able to showcase the best of our way of life—our national character as well as the splendour of our nation. Tourism enhances the quality of life of those who visit, as well as those who host. It is therefore having a central role in helping Paris to emerge from last month’s atrocities. We stand shoulder to shoulder with her, as she does with us.
Question put and agreed to.
The Shrewsbury 24
[Mr George Howarth in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the Home Office and the case of the Shrewsbury 24.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. As Members will know, this is not the first occasion on which the great injustice of Shrewsbury has been brought before Parliament. I make it clear from the outset that there is no doubt that the jailing of Dessie Warren, Ricky Tomlinson and four others, and the guilty verdicts against a further 18 Shrewsbury pickets, was a great injustice. Indeed, in 2014 there was a full debate in the main Chamber in which an overwhelming majority supported the motion to release Government documents pertaining to the case. Earlier this year, due to the perspicacity of my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Mr Anderson), we again debated the call for the release of Government documentation relating to the Shrewsbury 24.
It might be asked why we are here again to raise the matter with the Minister. The answer is quite simple: not only have the Government not kept their promise to release the documents kept secret from the public for 43 years because of a fallacious threat to national security, but there is now compelling evidence, to which my right hon. Friend the Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham) and I have had access, that undeniably proves that the whole saga is a conspiracy at the very heart of Government. We would like to bring that to the House’s attention.
I will quickly recap the events of the national building workers’ strike of 1972, its immediate aftermath and the new evidence that was recently brought to light. I will then highlight what campaigners are requesting and the process for release. From previous debates, I know that some Tory Members simply believe that workers should not be allowed to strike and that many who do are either agitators or criminals, but I remind the House that taking legitimate strike action was then an inalienable right—and it still is, despite the draconian restrictions of the Trade Union Bill.
In the previous debates on this matter, apart from some limited opposition relating to some of the minor issues surrounding the case, the material substance of the claims raised in Parliament has been largely accepted. As John Platts-Mills QC said:
“The trial of the Shrewsbury Pickets is the only case I know of where the government has ordered a prosecution in defiance of the advice of senior police and prosecution authorities.”
The campaign team’s researcher, the redoubtable Eileen Turnbull, trawled through documentation archived at Kew and uncovered a letter dated 25 January 1973 from the then Attorney General, Peter Rawlinson—the highest legal adviser in the land—to the then Home Secretary, Robert Carr. Rawlinson advised the Home Secretary that, in his view, having discussed the case with Treasury counsel and the Director of Public Prosecutions, no less,
“proceedings should not be instituted.”
There is a litany of major inconsistencies in due legal process but, for expediency, I will outline just a few. Despite the fact that the police never received any report of incidents of criminal behaviour, or even unacceptable behaviour, by pickets at the time of the industrial action, political interference led to a belated investigation of the Shrewsbury pickets. The unions did not receive any complaints from the police about the conduct of the pickets—in fact, there is photographic evidence showing that the police were mingling freely with the strikers.
There was political interference with the judicial process and a very dubious relationship between senior Tories and certain senior police officers. Convictions for conspiracy were the then Government’s ultimate aim, as such convictions were seen as totemic in deterring other workers from taking industrial action. Despite no complaints, cautions or arrests, on 6 September 1972 a team of 24 detectives was deployed to north Wales to carry out a fishing exercise, gathering 800 statements, of which three quarters were discarded. Original statements that did not fit the investigators’ viewpoint were shredded and new statements ordered. I am sure the shadow Home Secretary will examine that issue in further detail.
A practice direction from the then Lord Chancellor followed in which the legal system regarding the swearing in of juries was changed. That denied defence solicitors the right to know jurors’ occupations, to which legal representatives had been privy for generations. The defendants’ legal team expressed major concern about the lack of neutrality in the area in which the trial was held. The trial was presided over by Judge Mais, whose inexperience was matched only by his lack of impartiality; his expertise was mainly in rural and ecclesiastical matters.
Inexplicably, a television programme entitled “Red Under the Bed”, which specifically made references to the ongoing trial, was allowed to be televised in the Shrewsbury area during the trial. In any other circumstance that would have been considered contempt of court and the trial would have been stopped. Scenes from the building workers’ strike, the committal hearing at Shrewsbury and shots of Des Warren and some of the Shrewsbury pickets were screened, which was prejudicial to a fair hearing. Papers already released show that the then Government, right up to the Prime Minister, were involved in assisting the programme’s production. The jury was misled. When the jury initially failed to agree a verdict, it was advised that, should it agree to convict, the accused would only be fined by the court. As we know, that did not happen.
In the Commons debate of January 2014, the motion requested that the Government release all documents relating to the prosecution of the Shrewsbury 24. At the end of the debate, the then Justice Minister, Simon Hughes, replied for the coalition:
“The Government are…committed to transparency.”—[Official Report, 23 January 2014; Vol. 574, c. 515.]
He wanted as “much information as possible” to be put in the public domain, in line with the Freedom of Information Act enacted by the previous Labour Government.
I had the pleasure of replying to that debate for the Opposition; we were somewhat encouraged by what the then Minister, Simon Hughes, said. I am delighted that my hon. Friend has secured this debate almost two years later, and I am particularly pleased that my right hon. Friend, the shadow Home Secretary, is here. The Government have since gone backwards, have they not? They are now bringing the shutters down. Is that not a disgrace?
Hopefully, between us, we will be able to explain to the people here, and to the wider public watching and listening to this debate, exactly how the Government have backtracked on the promises that were made less than two years ago. If the Government are honest about transparent and open government, which we so often hear about from Government Members, the easy thing for them to do is to release the documents.
Two years ago, I said that I believed the course of natural justice had been denied because of arrests
“on trumped-up charges…a dodgy trial and…unsound convictions. That would not be allowed and would not be acceptable today, and it should not have been allowed and should not have been acceptable then. It was a legal process that would shame a third-world dictatorship.”—[Official Report, 23 January 2014; Vol. 574, c. 492.]
Given the new evidence seen by my right hon. Friend the Member for Leigh and me, I now believe that to be the case even more than I did following the debate 23 months ago.
Frankly, it is bonkers that the documents we requested in that debate—a request that the House of Commons overwhelmingly supported in the vote—should remain under lock and key. The Minister at the time, Simon Hughes, said that just four documents relating to the Shrewsbury trial were being withheld by the Ministry of Justice, but he could not speak for other Departments. He also conceded that the Government were retaining 625 files from 1972. It is our belief that the process that led to the prosecution of the Shrewsbury pickets is germane to many of those files, which are therefore fundamental to the veracity of the campaigners’ case. Only when those files are placed in the National Archives at Kew for public viewing will that become apparent.
The superficial justification for the Government’s position is that an exemption from disclosure was signed by the Lord Chancellor of the day, Lord Hailsham, who at the time was a Cabinet member, a Law Lord, Speaker of the House of Lords and a member of the judiciary. By coincidence, he acquired a significant range of new responsibilities through the higher courts in England and Wales when the Courts Act 1971 came into force in 1972, and he used his power to suppress information under section 3(4) of the Public Records Act 1958.
Some might say that this happened a long time ago, and they would be correct. Indeed, other Home Secretaries have had the opportunity to overturn the original decision, but have failed to do so. The most recent instrument, signed in 2011, provides an explanation of the reason for withholding the documents, under section 5, which states:
“The special reason is that transfer of the records after that period to the Public Record Office or a place of deposit appointed by the Lord Chancellor under the Act will create a real risk of prejudice to national security.”
Parliament has been discussing “national security” at length during the past few weeks, and I would never try to diminish the importance of our domestic resilience. As many Members said during the Syria debate, there is no greater priority than the safety of the nation. But can anybody honestly argue that a strike by building workers who sought better pay and working conditions 43 years ago would in any way threaten our national security?
The Shrewsbury 24 campaign submitted an application to the Criminal Cases Review Commission on 3 April 2012. The Government have assured them that the CCRC has been given access to all documents relating to the trials, but how do we know this has actually happened? The CCRC is not the advocate for the applicants; it is the adjudicator, and it is there to consider the evidence from the applicants to decide whether or not there is a real possibility that the Court of Appeal would find the convictions unsafe. There are many files at the National Archives in Kew that have just one or two pages in them that relate to the trials. How can the Government expect the CCRC to go through dozens of files looking for individual documents when it simply does not have the staff for such a monumental task? Although the CCRC has statutory powers to obtain documents, it does not have the resources to conduct the detailed research that is necessary to show a conviction to be unsafe.
In the case of the Shrewsbury 24, the convictions were brought about by Government interference. The applicants have to establish that, and the CCRC cannot do that for them. However, the relevant Government Departments know exactly where their particular documents relating to the case lie, and they could provide them to the applicants to ensure that they can make a complete evidential submission to the CCRC, so that their application can be fully considered—if, of course, there was the genuine will within Government to be open and transparent; and that is why we are here today.
After the debate in 2014, the Minister met my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon, together with the campaign researcher, Eileen Turnbull, and the most well known of the pickets, Ricky Tomlinson. Afterwards, the Minister arranged for Stephen Jones, head of freedom of information and justice devolution at the Ministry of Justice, to send Eileen the references of files held at Kew that could relate to the Shrewsbury pickets. Mr Jones sent her 2,307 references. Eileen diligently and painstakingly went through the references and selected 51 of the files that she believed to include information about the Government’s involvement in the prosecutions, even though they did not specifically refer to the Shrewsbury trials in their titles.
Eileen’s research concluded that there was important material kept on file relating to the Shrewsbury pickets that was not specifically referenced using either the word “Shrewsbury” or the word “pickets”. That was supported by an open document at Kew that stated that information regarding picketing was held under the reference “Security/Subversion”. Staff at Kew acknowledged that the Cabinet Office uses this reference internally. This information establishes, therefore, that there are many files—at least four volumes—kept on pickets by the Government and referenced “Security/Subversion”. When Eileen followed up her request for files with the words “Subversion in industry” in their titles, she was refused, as everything that fits that description—“Security/Subversion”—is classified.
The Government say that they have withheld only three letters and a security services report. We believe that there is much, much more than that on file and we would ask, in the first instance, for the following documents to be released. First, there is the report of West Mercia police and the report of Gwynedd police, which were sent to the Director of Public Prosecutions by Chief Constable John Williams on 18 December 1972. The campaign believes that these documents demonstrate that the police considered that there was no evidence to bring charges against the Shrewsbury pickets.
Second, there is the communication between the Home Secretary and other Departments, and West Mercia and Gwynedd police forces, including Assistant Chief Constable Alex Rennie, after 6 September 1972 about their large-scale investigations into picketing in north Wales and the Shropshire area during the strike. The campaign believes that these documents reveal the process of decision making that occurred at Cabinet and security services level to bring about charges against the building workers. As we all know, there were no complaints by the police or the public on 6 September 1972. No pickets were cautioned or arrested, even though there was a large-scale police presence at sites in Shropshire that day.
Thirdly, there are the communications between the Home Secretary and the Attorney General in December 1972 and January 1973 about the prosecution of the pickets. Campaigners have long believed that these documents will reveal who made the decision to proceed with charges against the building workers five months after the dispute ended.
Fourthly, there is the note of the phone call from a Government Department to Desmond Fennell, the junior prosecution counsel at Shrewsbury Crown court, that according to Maurice Drake QC, chief prosecuting counsel, was a request to inform the judge that they did not want him to pass custodial sentences. The campaign believes that this document further highlights evidence of the Government’s direct interference with the trial.
Fifthly, there are the MI5 files held on Des Warren, Ricky Tomlinson and any of the other pickets. The relevance of this request is obvious, as campaigners believe that these files will reveal the monitoring of the pickets during the 1972 building workers strike by the security services, as well as the security services’ activities in manipulating the Shrewsbury trials.
Sixthly, a full copy of a letter from Robert McAlpine and Sons Ltd dated 26 February 1973 to the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis should be released. Campaigners believe that this letter confirms the role of this construction company in intensifying pressure on the police to bring about charges against the pickets. Just for reference, I point out that the Brookside site in Telford was, by coincidence, a McAlpine site, and Sir Robert was, of course, a senior member of the Conservative party. That site was where the evidence was assembled by the police to bring about charges of conspiracy to intimidate, affray and unlawful assembly.
The Cabinet Office maintains that it would not be in the public interest for the files to be released. That is absolute nonsense, which most reasonable people would categorically reject as an argument. For the Government to resist requests to disclose documents actually brings about distrust and suspicion, which is not in the public interest. However, central to my request for the release of these files is the desire for justice for these men while they are still able to see justice being done. Many of the lives of the Shrewsbury 24 were blighted by the events 43 years ago. The youngest of the Shrewsbury 24 is 68 and the oldest is 90. At least five have passed away since the trials in 1973-74, so time is of the essence.
It is inconceivable that a building workers strike in 1972 could throw up issues of national security in 2015.
The hon. Gentleman is making a very persuasive case. I start from the presumption that, where matters of justice are concerned, the hurdle for withholding information is much higher, so I start from a presumption in his favour. It has been reported in the newspapers today, or by the Press Association today, that the shadow Home Secretary is proposing to withhold support for the Investigatory Powers Bill if he does not, as it were, win his argument today. It seems to me that there are two arguments here: one, which is very powerful, that the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Steve Rotheram) has just made; and another one, which again is powerful, against the Investigatory Powers Bill. It seems to me that both arguments are diminished by joining them. Can the hon. Gentleman tell us that what he is after today is to win by persuasion and not by coercion?
I think the argument is persuasive. To tell the truth, I never speak for the shadow Home Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Leigh; he can speak for himself. Given that he will wind up, he will address the points made by the right hon. Gentleman.
It has taken 43 years to get where we are today, and the argument that we are putting forward overwhelmingly demonstrates, I think, that there is no way that any of the documents that would be released could be a danger to national security. That is the nub of this: it is about the documentation being released, so that the CCRC can have the full picture, not a partial one, in deciding whether to refer to the Court of Appeal. That is what the debate is about; others can speak for themselves.
I hesitate ever to disagree with the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis), but we now have a Government who are attacking freedom of information and the Human Rights Act, including the right to freedom of assembly. We need to see these things in the round, because there is a sustained attack on individual freedom.
It is sustained in as much as it has taken Governments of all persuasions—to tell the truth—more than 43 years to get to the position we are in today. I am no friend of the current Government, but we also had an opportunity. We were in government for 13 years and we should have done a lot more than we did. This is not just about the apportionment of blame; it is about trying to get to where we need to get. Let us get everything out there and give it to the CCRC, so that it can make an informed decision on whether the case should be referred back to the Court of Appeal.
I am sure my hon. Friend will join me in thanking our right hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan). As shadow Lord Chancellor, he made that change—I was simply his vehicle for announcing it—to say for the first time that a future Labour Government will release all those documents, and that pledge is maintained.
I could not agree with my hon. Friend more, and in fact—I think the shadow Home Secretary will come to this—we want to go further. We want to look at historic injustices in the round. There are direct links between an awful lot of them. There is a thread that goes from 1971, possibly through what happened with Wilson, through the miners’ strike and possibly ending up with Hillsborough. I have been given a lot of information by Eileen Turnbull and others on this, and there are so many similarities, with the establishment deciding what was right for the country and covering things up.
This is a conspiracy that happened at the very highest level, so I look forward to a Labour Government, although what we are asking for is for the documents to be released, hopefully before a Labour Government, and we cannot get that until 2020. For some of the Shrewsbury pickets, four years is four years too long. They have waited long enough. The reason we want it is that information requested could prove crucial to the case that the campaigners are putting forward to the CCRC and to having those unsound convictions overturned by the Court of Appeal. It is time for the obfuscation to stop and for the Government to do what is right.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Steve Rotheram) on his contribution and welcome this further debate. I welcome the work of those outside the House who are campaigning daily to try to get to the truth of what happened more than 40 years ago. It is clear that an injustice has taken place and that the convictions were wrong. It is clear that those convictions caused tremendous difficulty to people at the time, but many, including a number of my constituents, bear the cross of those convictions still.
My hon. Friend made a strong case, and I do not wish to repeat it; it speaks for itself. It is, however, important to remember that the strike was about pay and working conditions. In the three years before that strike took place, 571 people had been killed and 224,000 had been injured in the building industry. The strike was about trying to get fairness at work. Such issues will of course generate strong passions, but the key question is whether the strike generated criminal activity. I believe that the Government have information on that and that the ongoing criminal review will show that the strike was not a criminal act, but an argument about conditions at work.
My hon. Friend has covered the long history in detail, but I have taken an interest in this case and campaign for some time. I am a Member of Parliament for a north Wales constituency and I represent a large number of the people who were charged and convicted at that time—some are still alive and some have died.
Let me make a confession, Mr Howarth: I was a Minister at the Ministry of Justice in the latter part of the last Labour Government. I could not raise the issues as a Minister, but as a constituency MP I wrote to Jack Straw, the then Member for Blackburn, in 2008-09. I asked him on behalf of my constituents whether we could release papers relating to the convictions, the trial and surrounding matters. My right hon. Friend, as he was then and still is now, agreed to look at those papers. After consideration, the Labour Government agreed to release the papers relating to the trial in 2012. Obviously, we lost the election in 2010.
I took it upon myself on 8 November 2010 to write to the then Justice Secretary, the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke). I said that there was a commitment from my right hon. Friend, the then Member for Blackburn, to lift the blanket ban on those papers and to release them in 2012. I asked whether he would stick to that agreement. He wrote back saying that the blanket agreement was still in place and would be in place until 2012, but that he was reviewing the matter. I gave him the benefit of the doubt.
On 23 March 2011, I wrote to the then Justice Secretary again and asked him to make a decision. He wrote back and said that he was still considering the matter. I wrote to his successor, the right hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling), on 20 November 2012. He said, “Thanks very much, David. It is very nice of you to write, but on 19 December last year, unbeknown to you or the House and without any disclosure, the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe signed a new instrument, giving his approval for the retention of the records.” The retained records include the information that my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton mentioned, but also—this has helpfully come to light—information relating to other matters. That is why a Minister from the Home Office is responding to the debate.
Why is that information important and why are those papers still being retained? As my hon. Friend said, we had a debate in January last year on a Back-Bench motion, in which the House overwhelmingly voted to support the release of the papers. The Justice Minister at that time indicated that he would review the matter further; presumably, he said that on behalf of the Government that the Minister here today was and is a member. The then Justice Minister said at the time that under existing public record legislation, papers would be retained past the 30 years only if they were
“retained for any other special reason”.—[Official Report, 24 March 2015; Vol. 594, c. 468WH.]
On 1 January 2013, the same Government began their move to transparency, deciding that 30-year documents would be released after 20 years because they wanted to be open and transparent. Yet in the case of the papers relating to the Shrewsbury trial and convictions, the Government do not want the 20-year rule to apply. They do not even want to stick at 30 years, which is the current figure, but prefer a situation in which my constituents, who face this issue every day of the week, have to wait until 2022 before they can find out what documents the Government choose to release, all because of some nefarious issue relating to “some other special reason”. My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton has mentioned what the other special reason could be: the involvement of the security services.
Before I came to this debate, I googled the words “Falklands war”. We might think those words would elicit closure, secrecy and lack of transparency. I can find out anything I want about what was said in the Cabinet, what was undertaken in Cabinet and what was done at the time about the Falklands war, yet I cannot find information about what happened 10 years before that during an industrial dispute, because the Government have undertaken some disclosure, but not full disclosure.
What is so secret, so damning, so damaging and so improbable that the Government, 40 years on, will not let people have full access to the history of their case?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for putting it that way. I will take that as a compliment to Mr Tomlinson, and also to my friends who live in my town in my constituency who face this issue daily. Where are the people who were working in the security services from 1972 to 1975? How old are they now? We are talking about 42 or 43 years ago. Were they in short trousers working for the security services? They will have retired. They will have gone. They will be off the face of the earth. They will have moved on. They are not there now in senior positions. If they are, let us hold them to account for what they have done.
This 42-year-old case matters to me and my constituents. I do not want to mention people by name—they know who they are—but I will provide one example. I will not put his name on the record; he knows who he is.
A colleague of mine is a town councillor in the town where I live. He is the mayor of the town. He will be putting on his red cloak and his chain in a week’s time for another civic event. He has served as a county councillor, been on the police authority, worked as a lecturer and is a citizen of the community in which I live. He is respected, well known, well loved and well liked, yet he cannot go to America on holiday with his friends and family because of an event 42 years ago: he got a conviction that, if the information was found, could be proved to be false. My constituent, the mayor, cannot get a visa, even today, to travel to the United States, because he is viewed as a threat to security. This person lives in my town, serves on a police committee and is the mayor of the town. He can walk down the street and hold his head high for what he tried to do at the time.
If disclosure is going to be unfair to somebody in the security services or Lord Hailsham or another Conservative Minister, so be it. Their reputations might deserve to be challenged at this stage. What is not fair is for my constituents—not only the one I have mentioned—to live in a community that knows they have been to jail or have convictions when those convictions are false. That is what the issue is about. This is not fun and games between the Government and Opposition Members; this is about real people’s lives and we want to see justice done. We should see the information and let the world judge whether there is something to hide.
I do not know what the documents contain. Let the world judge and not say what the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr Letwin), said to me in a parliamentary answer on the Floor of the House on 21 October. When I asked him about releasing the papers, he did not say, “I am reviewing it”, “I will look at it”, or “There may be a case”. He said:
“No. I have no intention of authorising the release of those papers, which relate to the security services.”—[Official Report, 21 October 2015; Vol. 600, c. 940.]
The Minister needs to justify that answer and not simply say there is no reason to release those papers. He needs to talk about transparency and explain what happened 43 years ago. I support my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton and the case he has made. The Minister must respond and I look forward to hearing what he says at the end of this debate.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. The debate is timely and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Steve Rotheram), who for many years has been a stalwart in trying to get justice for the Shrewsbury 24. I will say this on the record: this case is a catastrophic and deliberate miscarriage of justice deliberately organised by the state. Of that there is no doubt. If they have nothing to hide, let us see the papers. It is simple. I can see the Minister staring at me. He is a former worker, which is highly unusual among the Conservatives. He has worked in the services with distinction, so I appeal to his good side. We are not asking for anything out of the ordinary other than to see some documents. According to the Conservative Government, there is not anything in them. If there is not anything in them, why can we not see them? That is fairly straightforward.
We have discussed this case on various occasions in the Commons. The Back-Bench debate in the Chamber was one of the best debates we have had. We were solid behind the motion that was tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Mr Anderson).
I am a former miner. I have been through many strikes. I have been a picket and have suffered the same as some of the representatives of the Shrewsbury 24. It is simply not right for an ordinary person, who has never had any problems and never been arrested before, to get arrested for trying to save their job and look after their family. It is just not right. It is an abuse of political power. It is an abuse of the judiciary system, an abuse of individual human rights, and an attack on the fact that someone is prepared to be part of a collective organisation in the trade union movement. That is what happened back then. This was not an industrial dispute, but a political dispute. The state wanted to show, by example, what would happen if people dared to stand up against the state.
We have seen legislation after legislation introduced since then. The recent Trade Union Bill, which should be the anti-trade union Bill, builds on what happened all those years ago in the early 1970s. These people were on strike; they were not raving, militant lunatics and revolutionaries. They were on strike because people were getting maimed and killed in the building industry. They were fighting for wages and, in the main, for health and safety on building sites. Is there any better cause for trade union members to fight for than the health and safety of the people they work with in the workplace? I think not.
We hear much in this country about aspiration and about who represents those with aspiration. Surely, those involved in this dispute were an example of that—their aspiration was for a better life, better working conditions and better pay.
They had little in the way of aspiration other than to live the life of ordinary working people. If we think about it, this was about people being able to go to their workplace and do their job, to actually come home and see their families without having been maimed or lamed, and to put bread on the table at the end of the week. That is what these outrageous people were after. They have been targeted for years just for wanting to get on with their jobs in a safe environment and to create a decent life for their families.
When we had our debate nearly two years ago, the hon. Member for Aldershot (Sir Gerald Howarth), in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Blyth Valley (Mr Campbell), shouted that it was nice to see
“old Labour is still alive and well and, in some respects, seeking both to justify and to romanticise mob rule and violence and intimidation.”
Who was romanticising? Where was the mob rule? Where was the intimidation? Nobody was arrested on the day. There was not a problem. The police were there, and they were talking to the pickets. It was a fine example of how things should be. There were no problems until months later, when people started to get the knocks on the door. My hon. Friend the former Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North said that the comments by the hon. Member for Aldershot
“reminded us exactly what the Tories are about”
“workers should be…seen and not heard”.—[Official Report, 23 January 2014; Vol. 574, c. 485-501.]
I think he summed it up perfectly.
There has been new, compelling evidence, and I am sure my right hon. Friend the Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham) will explain exactly what it is and add to what has been said by my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton. However, a documentary was shown, including in Shrewsbury, during the court hearing. It was called “Red Under the Bed”. It showed scenes involving the men who were up for trial. Good Lord, is that fair? Who saw it? Who did not see it? However, it is also compelling evidence, isn’t it? Perhaps we could use it to show that there was no intimidation and mob rule, that people were not fighting and that bricks were not being thrown. There was none of that.
I want to put on record my support for, and my commitment to, every one of the Shrewsbury 24 pickets and their families. I give a guarantee that we will fight forever and a day to seek justice for them. However, we really should look for justice as soon as we can. As my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton mentioned, the youngest of these men is 68, while the oldest is 90, and five of them have died.
These principled people were offered a fine of £50 if they would walk away. The police officers said, “You can be home at 3 o’clock if you accept a guilty plea.” They would not be here now—we would not be here now—if they had accepted. However, out of principle, they said, “We are not guilty of any charges that have been placed on us.” That is principle.
It is about time that we—as a country and as politicians—ensured that these people got justice. Let us see who was behind the decisions that were made at the time in the police and the judiciary and, most of all, who was behind the political decisions made against these honourable, hard-working people.
It is a pleasure to be here and to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I thank the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Steve Rotheram) for securing the debate. His speech was informative, persuasive and, above all, powerful.
As the SNP spokesperson on trade union and workers’ rights, let me say it is a pleasure to speak in the debate. Before coming to this place, I was a Unison activist. Two years ago, in the hon. Gentleman’s city of Liverpool, Ricky Tomlinson addressed the UK Unison conference to raise awareness of the Shrewsbury 24 Campaign. It was my pleasure, as the then treasurer of Glasgow City Unison, to sign a cheque to the campaign, and I would encourage all members of the public watching the debate to consider making a contribution to it.
I want to assure the campaign that all right hon. and hon. Members of the SNP support it. It is important that justice be done. I should add that the campaign resonates with me because the arrests and charges came one month before I was born. Throughout my whole lifetime, therefore, the Shrewsbury 24 Campaign has been waiting for justice.
We know from the campaign that the National Federation of Building Trades Employers compiled a dossier. At the time, the Financial Times dismissed the dossier, saying:
“This document is itself flawed since it suggests the existence of a sinister plot without being able to substantiate the allegations. Many of the incidents that have been listed seem to be little more than the ordinary spontaneous angry behaviour that might be expected on a building site at any time (and especially during an industrial dispute)…the publication reads more like a politically motivated pamphlet than a serious study.”
That is a good way of putting it.
I want to praise the speeches we have heard so far. The hon. Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) referred to the previous debate, on the Floor of the House, in January 2014, and to the hon. Member for Aldershot (Sir Gerald Howarth). When I read the report of the debate, I noticed that that hon. Gentleman bragged about his membership of the Freedom Association—what we would consider to be the Consulting Association’s wee cousin.
The right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson) made a number of excellent points. I was surprised to hear that promises made in correspondence to him since 2010 have not been kept. I think he is due an explanation.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, beyond this huge injustice, something else is at stake—the reputation of this Parliament? Deceit upon deceit has been practised here, and the reputation of the word of Minister after Minister is now in the gutter. There is a deep-seated smell of corruption, which goes right to the heart of the Government, and it needs to be expunged.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that. He makes the valid point that members of the public outside watching this debate will be very confused that promises about the release of information keep getting made but are not kept. That is why many of them do not trust parliamentarians and Parliament. The hon. Gentleman’s point is well made.
In making his powerful address, the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton got to the nub of the issue for those involved in the campaign. The eldest of these men is 90, and the youngest is 68. They should not have to wait five years for the release of these documents.
The SNP supports the decision taken in the House in January 2014. I want to emphasise the result of the vote: there were 120 votes in favour of releasing the documents, and three against. Many of us are concerned that national security is being used as a reason not to release the documents. Len McCluskey, the general secretary of Unite, has said:
“It is time to end this 40-year conspiracy of silence and release all the government documents relating to the Shrewsbury 24. There is something deeply wrong in this country when a 21st century government uses national security to withhold documents about ordinary working people who tried to improve their working conditions four decades ago. We believe the Tories are desperately trying to hide the stench of a great miscarriage of justice and we urge fair minded MPs to back our campaign to release all the government papers on the Shrewsbury 24.”
Alex Deane, a Conservative public affairs consultant, wrote on the ConservativeHome website in January 2014,
“whilst deeply unsympathetic to their cause, I find it simply impossible to conjure up what the national security concerned might be in hiding the decisions taken by officials and elected persons relating to the prosecution of builders in Shropshire 40 years ago. What technique of surveillance or undercover work might possibly justify non-disclosure after this passage of time? Any technique will be outdated or universally known about. Any individual involved in undercover work can have his or her name redacted from the papers which might otherwise be released. Consideration of the wider disclosures rightly made in recent times of papers relating to Northern Ireland, where on any view those concerned were more dangerous, makes a mockery of any such claim to national security concerns.”
We believe a great injustice has been done, and hope that the Minister will confirm today that he will release the papers relating to the Shrewsbury 24.
Order. I am about to call the shadow Home Secretary. Although I think there will be plenty of time for both Front-Bench spokesmen, I ask them to bear in mind the fact that Steve Rotheram has the right to a few minutes at the very end. I hope that they will make sure that he gets them.
I want to congratulate my great friend: my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Steve Rotheram) made a powerful and persuasive speech. I also thank my many Opposition colleagues for being here today and for their show of solidarity with the Shrewsbury 24. Given that it is nearly Christmas, I even thank the Scottish National party for being here to lend support to our campaign. It is good to have it.
The Government deserve credit for the willingness that they have shown in facing up to the historical injustices of Bloody Sunday, Hillsborough and child sexual exploitation. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton has said, something that many people consider an outrageous injustice—a case that goes to the heart of how we were governed and policed in the previous century—is still shrouded in secrecy today. In the previous Parliament, following a debate called by my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Mr Anderson), the House voted overwhelmingly for the full truth about Shrewsbury finally to be told, but in October the Minister for the Cabinet Office ruled that the Government papers would continue to be withheld.
The purpose of today’s debate is to challenge that decision, and I will do so by revealing a series of documents that shed new light on the whole issue. Before I do that, I want to pay tribute, as my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton did, to Eileen Turnbull, the researcher to the Shrewsbury 24 campaign, whose diligence and utter dedication to the cause has brought the documents to light. I have her dossier here today, and it reveals three things: first, how the trial was politically driven by the then Home Secretary, from the gathering of evidence to the commencement of proceedings; secondly, how there was an abuse of process by police in the taking of statements; and thirdly, how there was an attempt at the highest levels of Government, supported by the security services, to influence the outcome of the trial.
There is also a crucial piece of context, which other hon. Members have mentioned, and I ask that it be borne in mind at all times. On the day in question, 6 September 1972, no pickets were arrested, nor were any cautions issued. That brings me to the first document, a letter dated 20 September 1972—some two weeks later—from the press officer of the National Federation of Building Trades Employers to regional secretaries. It is headed “Intimidation Dossier” and it says:
“You will be aware that we are compiling a dossier on incidents of intimidation and violence during the recent wage dispute. The intention is to pass this document to the Home Secretary for his consideration with a view to tightening up the law on picketing in industrial disputes.”
It calls for details of any incidents, statements from eyewitnesses and photographs. So at the outset that establishes that there was an evidence-gathering exercise on the strike involving the Home Office at the highest level.
Confirmation of the political interest in legal proceedings comes from the second document that I have: a page from the case file of the Director of Public Prosecutions on the Shrewsbury pickets. An entry on 29 December 1972 reads as follows:
“The Home Secretary is interested in this case. 2 counsel to be nominated.”
That, by the way, was no passing interest from the Home Secretary, as the third document will show. I have here a letter dated 25 January 1973 about the Shrewsbury case from the then Attorney General Peter Rawlinson to the then Home Secretary Robert Carr. Its contents are extraordinary. It begins:
“The building worker’s strike last summer produced instances of intimidation of varying degrees of seriousness...A number of instances consisted of threatening words and in which there was no evidence against any particular person of violence or damage to property. In these circumstances Treasury Counsel, took the view that the prospects”—
of a conviction—
“were very uncertain, and in the result I agreed with him and the Director that proceedings should not be instituted.”
That letter is talking about proceedings against the Shrewsbury pickets. It goes on to warn of the risks of jury trial, saying that
“juries tend to treat mere words more leniently than actual violence”.
There it is—an admission that they were talking about “mere words”. Two conclusions can be drawn. First, the Home Secretary of the day was advised by the Attorney General and the DPP that no proceedings should be brought against the Shrewsbury pickets. Secondly, it is made clear and explicit that there was no evidence of violence or damage to property. “Mere words” were the only things that were thrown.
We do not have documents revealing the subsequent decision-making process within Government, but we do have the first page of a confidential memo sent by the Home Secretary to the Prime Minister the week after the letter was sent. It reads:
“Thank you for your minute of 29 January about picketing. I have taken a close personal interest in this problem since I came to the Home Office and I have myself discussed it with the chief officers of those police forces which have had to deal with the most serious picketing. I believe that chief constables are now fully aware of the importance we attach to the matter”.
From that there is no doubt at all that the Home Secretary was heavily interfering in operational police matters, and just over a week after his memo was sent to the Prime Minister the Shrewsbury pickets were picked up by police and charged—a full five months after the strike had ended. That series of documents puts beyond any reasonable doubt the fact that the Shrewsbury trial was politically driven by the Home Secretary of the day.
I am sorry I have not been able to attend the debate so far, but I was attending to my staff in the run-up to the Christmas period. The shadow Home Secretary makes a big play of the fact that the Home Secretary was involved. The right hon. Gentleman was not around at the time, and I was. I recall the case and, indeed, had a letter about it published in The Times. If the right hon. Gentleman is suggesting that the Home Secretary should not have been concerned about the case, I think he is making a mistake. The Home Secretary should have been concerned.
At that time, the nation was bedevilled by strikes. We had not had the legislation that Margaret Thatcher introduced. If the case that the right hon. Gentleman is making is that the Home Secretary should not have been involved, that is a fundamental misreading of the situation that applied at the time. The Home Secretary was right to be concerned because the British people were concerned at the way trade unions were running rampant across the country.
Perhaps the hon. Gentleman should have been here at the start of the debate to hear the whole case. He has just revealed that it was a political campaign against the trade unions. That is what he just said, and that is the point. He has revealed his hand to this entire gathering. It was a political campaign that Mrs Thatcher sorted out. That is the point here. There was a campaign driven from the top of Government, as I have revealed. We do not live in a country where politicians can put people on trial. I do not want to live in a country like that. These should be independent matters for the police and the legal authorities. The hon. Gentleman has heard evidence today of politicians putting people on trial; if he is not concerned about that, well, I am, and that is why we are holding this debate.
The next document that I have shows that due process was not followed in the aftermath of the political pressure. On 17 September 1973, a conference between police investigating the case and the chief Crown prosecutor, Mr Drake, was held at Mr Drake’s home. I have here a note of that conference. Let me quote the key passage in paragraph 16, which records an explanation from police officers about the gathering of statements:
“So that Counsel would be aware it was mentioned that not all original hand-written statements were still in existence, some having been destroyed after a fresh statement had been obtained. In most cases the first statement was taken before photographs were available for witnesses and before the Officers taking the statements knew what we were trying to prove.”
Let me read that again for the benefit of the hon. Member for Aldershot (Sir Gerald Howarth), so that he can hear it without any confusion. [Interruption.]
Order. Before the shadow Home Secretary does that, I should say that I understand that emotions are running high for those observing this case, particularly in the light of some of the things that have been said. However, the debate should be heard in silence.
Let me read from the note quietly and carefully so that no one is under any doubt. It says: “before the Officers”—the police officers—
“taking the statements knew what we were trying to prove.”
I put it to the House that that document, which has not been made public before, is the smoking gun in the Shrewsbury case. It is clear that the police felt it incumbent on them to investigate propelled by a prosecutorial narrative, rather than by an even-handed investigation of events. I was led to believe that the Conservative party believed in the Peelian principles of policing, but they were not followed in this case. Transcripts of the trial reveal that the court and the jury were never informed of the destruction of those original witness statements. That fact alone raises major questions about the conduct of the trial and the safety of the convictions.
I turn to the trial itself and the Government attempts to influence it. “Red Under the Bed” was a television programme made by Woodrow Wyatt for Anglia Television. Its aim was to reveal communist infiltration of the trade unions and the Labour party, but it was also clearly intended to influence the trial. Wyatt’s controversial commentary was interspersed with footage of John Carpenter and Des Warren and pictures of Shrewsbury Crown court. The programme was first broadcast across ITV regions on 13 November 1973, the day the prosecution closed its case. We know that the judge watched a video of the programme in his room just after it was broadcast. It is inconceivable that the programme did not influence the trial, and unthinkable in this day and age that a television programme prejudicial to a major trial could have been aired during that trial. But it was.
I will now reveal the full back story about how the programme was made. I have here a memo, headed “SECRET”, to a senior Foreign and Commonwealth Office official from the head of the Information Research Department, a covert propaganda unit operating within the FCO. It says:
“Mr. Woodrow Wyatt’s television programme, ‘Red under the Bed’, was shown nationally on commercial television on Tuesday, 13 November, at 10.30 p.m…We had a discreet but considerable hand in this programme…In February Mr. Wyatt approached us direct for help. We consulted the Department of Employment and the Security Service through Mr. Conrad Heron’s group…With their agreement, Mr. Wyatt was given a large dossier of our own background material. It is clear from internal evidence in the programme that he drew extensively on this”.
What an extraordinary thing for a Government official to be writing in a memo to a senior civil servant!
It gets worse. In the next paragraph, the head of the unit says this:
“In our estimation this was a hard-hitting, interesting and effective exposure of Communist and Trotskyist techniques of industrial subversion. But Mr. Wyatt’s concluding message, that the CPBG’s”—
the Communist Party of Great Britain’s—
“main aim is to take over the Labour Party by fair means or foul—an opinion which is almost incontrovertible—offended the Independent Broadcasting Authority’s standards of objectivity, as they interpret the Statute…This difference of opinion held up the showing of the film”.
This is senior civil servants talking about the infiltration of the Labour party—a spurious claim that they were trying to make through a television programme that they were directly involved in making. It is astonishing that it came to that.
Knowledge of what was going on went right to the very top. The Prime Minister’s Principal Private Secretary put in a handwritten note to Mr Heath. It says:
“Prime Minister…You may like to glance through this transcript of Woodrow Wyatt’s ‘Red Under The Bed’ TV programme.”
The reply came back from the Prime Minister:
“We want as much as possible of this”.
On the back of that, the PPS wrote a further confidential memo to Sir John Hunt, the Cabinet Secretary. It says:
“The Prime Minister has seen the transcript of Woodrow Wyatt’s television programme…He has commented that we want as much as possible of this sort of thing. He hopes that the new Unit is now in being and actively producing.”
The “new Unit”.
Yes, we can only wonder what that was. In a reply headed “Secret” and copied to the Prime Minister, Mr Hunt writes:
“I confirm that the new Unit is in being and is actively producing material. Use of the service”—
the Security Service—
“is being kept under continual review between the Lord Privy Seal and Mr Heron.”
So there we have it: the security services were helping to make not only a television programme that was nakedly political in its aim of damaging the Labour party but, in the case of the Shrewsbury 24, a programme that was prejudicial to their trial and that went out in the middle of their trial. The Government were complicit in making that happen.
The documents that I have revealed today lead us to only one conclusion: the Shrewsbury 24 were the convenient scapegoats of a Government campaign to undermine the trade unions. They were the victims of a politically orchestrated show trial. These revelations cast serious doubt on the safety of their convictions. Let us remember: this was a domestic industrial dispute led by one of the less powerful trade unions of the day, involving industrial action in and around a number of small market towns in England and, on the day in question, no arrests were made.
How on earth, 43 years on, can material relating to it be withheld under national security provisions? I put it to the Minister that the continuing failure to disclose will lead people to conclude that the issue has less to do with national security and more to do with the potential for political embarrassment if what was going on at the time were widely known.
We need from the Minister today a guarantee that all the papers identified as important by the Shrewsbury campaign are released to the National Archives. That is vital. As my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton said, the individuals concerned are not getting any younger. They have a right, even now, to a fair trial, and it is only when all the documents are released that we will know whether they received one.
But in the end, the issue is about more than 24 individuals. There is a modern-day relevance to today’s debate, with a Trade Union Bill going through Parliament that requires police supervision of the activities of trade unions. In the light of what I have revealed today, perhaps the public will understand more why the trade union movement objects so much to that Bill, and why the Bill has sinister echoes of the past. It also comes at a time when the Government are asking for our support for an extension of the investigatory powers of the police and security services.
As I have said before, I am prepared to support them on that. But if the Government want to build trust, they must be honest about the past. It is only by learning from this country’s past mistakes that we will be able to build the right safeguards into the new legislation and prevent future abuses by the state. I do not make my support conditional on that; I am asking the Government to help to build trust so that we can help them get the legislation right.
In the end, the Shrewsbury case is about how we were governed and policed in the second half of the last century. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton, I see clear parallels between Shrewsbury and Orgreave, where trumped-up charges against miners were thrown out of court—and, of course, with Hillsborough, where statements were altered to fit the narrative the authorities wanted. In all three cases, the establishment tried to demonise ordinary people.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the final, successful resolution of the Hillsborough case shows that it is never too late to overturn a miscarriage of justice?
I started by praising the Government for their work there, but they need to show the same openness and transparency here. In all three cases there was a pattern: the establishment tried to demonise ordinary people. Only when we know the full truth about the past century will we, as a new generation of lawmakers, be able to make this country fairer and more equal. This is the people’s history, and I demand their right to know it.
As always, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I congratulate the shadow Home Secretary on producing those documents today, which, frankly, I and, I would suggest, many of us in this room have never seen before. I also congratulate his hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Steve Rotheram) on securing the debate.
I was 14 in 1972—two years before I joined the Army; I am not as young as the Scottish National party spokesman, the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens)—but I do remember this event, not least because later on in life my father desperately tried to get me to stay in the building industry. My father and I come from a family of small builders, so it was very much there. There was a lot of talk about how we could make sites safer and make sure people on sites were paying their tax—this was when we brought the 715s in and all that—so I do know a little about this.
As the hon. Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) indicated, I am a worker, still today, and I come from a trade union background—the Fire Brigades Union, which I understand has rejoined the Labour party. I was a member of a trade union when I was a lifeguard for the local authority, but I cannot remember which one it was—it would have ended up in Unison by now, but I think it went through several versions—so of all the Ministers who could have been standing here today, I have empathy, and I have always tried to have empathy, particularly when I work with the shadow Home Secretary and particularly on Hillsborough.
It is very easy for us to assume that the Chamber—either this one or the main Chamber—could be a court of appeal, but it is not. There is a process going on now with the CCRC—an independent body, set up by the Government of the day—as to whether, in its opinion, there has been a miscarriage of justice that could be referred to the courts. That is the legal system we have in this country, and it is not for right hon. and hon. Gentlemen here to come to a conclusion. Most of us would agree that we have that sort of judicial system.
Will the Home Secretary give way?
I am sorry that I promoted the Minister inadvertently. The evidence may be fresh to him and this Chamber may not be a court of appeal, but does he accept that, to shed some light on the matter, he needs to publish the documents that my right hon. Friend the Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham) spoke about, which will help us come to some sort of conclusion? Does he accept that and will he do all in his power to ensure that happens?
I will come to where the documents should go, who should see them and what should happen, and ask the question, as general response, as to whether the CCRC has seen the documents and whether they have been submitted to it. If the right hon. Member for Leigh knows, perhaps he will let me know during the debate.
My understanding is that the CCRC has not seen the documents that the Shrewsbury campaign considers to be important. They are far more extensive than the small number of documents that the Ministry of Justice identified. The important thing is for the campaign to identify which documents it believes to be important. They should then be put into the archive at Kew and the relevant documents should be given to the CCRC. That is the process we are asking for.
I apologise if I inadvertently indicated that there was anything sub judice. Clearly there is not. The CCRC is there, before we get back into the courts, to independently look at what was going on.
Before I answer the question that the hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) asked me, let me say that 1972 is a long time ago. There have been many Governments, of two different persuasions, in power during that time.
Yes, three if we count the last one. For this to be a Tory conspiracy, whenever we are in government, I just do not understand as to why—[Interruption.] Bear with me. I do not understand why this has not been addressed before now. That is the point I am trying to make. It is all too easy to say, “You nasty, horrible guys. You’ve been in government for a long time, and you’ve not done this.” As the right hon. Member for Leigh said, we have done an awful lot, particularly on Hillsborough.
I know that the Minister is a decent guy and that he is trying to do his best, but could he tell us why my ex-right hon. Friend, the then Member for Blackburn, agreed that the documents would be released in 2012, but the current Ministers took a decision not to release them when they were asked in 2012?
I do not. There was a decision made by Jack Straw at the time. Previous Labour Home Secretaries had not done it. I accept the evidence that I have not seen before today, but if we really want to get to the truth, Labour Members cannot just say, “We were in government for 13 years and did absolutely nothing about it, and it is now suddenly your fault because you happen to be in government today.” I just do not accept that.
No, I am going to try to answer the hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth in as straight and honest a way as I possibly can.
The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr Letwin), looked at the documents carefully and said to the House that he will not reveal them, and that stands. He and the Cabinet Secretary—not a Tory politician—looked at the documents and
“both came to the firm conclusion that they do not relate in any way to the question of the safety of the conviction of the Shrewsbury 24”—[Official Report, 21 October 2015; Vol. 54, c. 940.]
I just want to pick up a point that the Minister made. He said, “You were in government, and you didn’t do it.” First, he is well aware, as an experienced Government Minister, that when one party is in government, there is a custom that it does not release papers relating to another party. He knows that, but the point is worth making. Secondly, to clear some of this up, why does he not meet some of the campaigners to discuss these issues? Let us try to move things forward, focus on what we are asking for today and see whether we can bring resolution to this whole issue.
The right hon. Gentleman knows that I am generally very fair about these sorts of things, and I would have come to that point in my speech, but I just felt—perhaps wrongly—that there was something that one of the Labour Administrations since 1972 could have done to address the concerns of the Shrewsbury 24. I think that must be a fair assumption by any description.
As the right hon. Member for Leigh said, I have been in many Departments, and I do not make instant judgments. I will look carefully at it.
On the shadow Home Secretary’s point, I am more than happy to meet the campaigners. I know that the Minister for Security—probably the more relevant person for the documents we are referring to—is also more than happy to do that. If there are other Ministers in Government who it would be pertinent for the campaigners to meet—I am probably putting my foot in it again, as usual—I cannot see any reason why they should not be able to do so. That is a way we can move forward.
I welcome that statement. I say to the Minister, in all humility and as a lawyer, that my hon. and right hon. Friends and I are not saying that the Shrewsbury 24 were innocent of criminal offences. That is not for us to say. What we are saying is that, on the evidence, particularly that produced today, there appears to have been a major injustice done—that those individuals were denied a fair trial to decide whether they were guilty or not. We want the Government to address the injustice of the apparent suppression and destruction of documents that would have aided the defence of the Shrewsbury 24 to make their case in a fair trial. They did not get that fair trial. That is the injustice that we want addressed. We are not saying today that they are innocent; we cannot do so as legislators.
The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. I am not a lawyer, and it is actually quite useful in the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice not to be a lawyer, because I can look at things in a slightly different way.
The Criminal Cases Review Commission did not exist in the ’70s—it was not put in place until 1997. It is absolutely imperative that the documents that the shadow Home Secretary has put before the House today are presented to the CCRC, so that it can do exactly what it says on the tin and impartially and independently look at the case. I know that other evidence has been submitted to the CCRC by the campaigners that we have not heard today, and it is imperative that we let the CCRC do its job.
With the documents, as we are saying. The CCRC has had access to any documents of any description that it requires and has asked to see. Those are exactly its powers.
I want I give the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton an opportunity to respond. I want to be as helpful as I possibly can. If meetings need to take place, they should take place. We are examining documents within the Home Office now to see whether they are relevant and if they are, we will do everything that we possibly can. However, there has been a decision—not my decision, but a decision made by the Cabinet Secretary, who I would think is fairly independent on such things, and the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster—that the documents that they have withheld have no relevance to the case of the Shrewsbury 24, and the Government are standing by their decision not to release those documents on the basis of national security. I know that that is perhaps not the answer that Opposition Members wanted from me, but that is the position of Her Majesty’s Government.
I will do everything that I can to assist the campaign as much as possible. If I was a constituency MP for the campaigners, I would be sitting there today, as hon. and right hon. Gentlemen and Ladies know, because that is the way I am. I passionately believe in the trade union movement. I was a member of it for long enough and have stood on picket lines myself. I believe in natural justice, which is what the CCRC is there for.
I first need to thank all hon. and right hon. Members who spoke in what I believe to be a particularly powerful debate. Most reasonable people watching today’s proceedings will come to the conclusion that the case has been overwhelmingly made for the release of the documents. It is for the campaigners to decide what documents they believe to be relevant and for the Government to release them to be lodged at Kew. Those documents should then be referred to the CCRC. That would be a just and equitable outcome from this afternoon.
I have to say that I hope that the real face of the Tories is the Minister who wound up and responded to the points that we raised and not the hon. Member for Aldershot (Sir Gerald Howarth), who, despite the rhetoric of compassionate Conservatism, proved beyond reasonable doubt that the nasty party is alive and kicking.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. I understand the passions that are aroused, but this country was seriously under threat at the time from trade unions that did not have the level of constraint that applies today. In 1979, 30 million days were lost to strike action—[Interruption.] It is no good shouting me down; this is the House of Commons. Last year, the number of days lost was 788,000. Industrial relations have been transformed since those unhappy days of which the hon. Gentleman speaks.
I am just trying to get my head around what the hon. Gentleman just said. He believes that because there was industrial action that lost the country days, it was okay for the state to stitch up 24 people and imprison them. Is that the point that he was making? I think people will come to their own conclusions.
The hon. Gentleman has had two goes and I think he is digging himself a deeper and deeper hole.
The Minister, who is an honourable man, tried to defend his position, but I think he tried to defend the indefensible on this occasion. He tried to muddy the waters around the release of the documents, but this is about a miscarriage of justice. That is what is central to today’s debate: a miscarriage of justice. The current Government have the opportunity—it is in their gift—to put right a wrong of 43 years. That is all that the campaigners have asked for over the decades. I hope that the Minister will listen to their concerns and to the arguments of Opposition Members. I hope that he will act with honesty and integrity and meet the campaigners and then go back and fight their cause to get the documents released.
Question put and agreed to.
That the House has considered the Home Office and the case of the Shrewsbury 24.
[Mrs Anne Main in the Chair]
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered prescription of anti-TNF drugs.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. I am grateful for the opportunity to speak about NHS prescription of anti-tumour necrosis factor drugs, a subject on which I have become somewhat familiar since I was contacted more than two months ago by my constituent, Samara Ullmann.
Before I move on to why I requested the debate and to define what anti-TNF drugs are and their uses, it may be helpful to give you, Mrs Main, the Minister and other Members present the background as to why this specialist medication will make such a difference to my constituent and so many others.
Samara Ullmann, who is now 29 years old, was born in my constituency in 1986. At the early age of just two, her parents noticed that she was walking with a limp. Worried about her clear inability to walk without pain, her parents took her to her local GP, who referred her to Leeds general infirmary where she was diagnosed with a condition known as juvenile idiopathic arthritis. The terrible condition affected both of little Samara’s legs, her wrists, her ankles and her knees. Her parents were told by the hospital that it was likely that she would have to be in a wheelchair by the time she reached the age of 10. From the age of two and until she was six, she had to wear splints on both her legs.
Professor Anne Chamberlain supervised Samara’s treatment over the next few years. During Samara’s visits to Leeds general infirmary every three to four weeks she was given hydrotherapy, physiotherapy and a cocktail of drugs. Her parents were told that little else could be done for her, which was confirmed by some of the country’s top rheumatologists.
From the age of six, Samara started having problems with both her eyes, which developed uveitis, a common effect of JIA. By the time she was seven, a cataract had developed in her left eye and was removed, but it was left considerably weakened so that, by the time she reached the age of 11, she had completely lost the sight in that eye. Fortunately, her right eye continued to function normally, although when she reached the age of 14 she needed laser treatment on that good eye and was understandably frightened that she would be left completely blind.
The JIA improved considerably by the time Samara reached 17, but sadly her left eye had to be removed because it was both blind and painful. After three months, she was fitted with a prosthetic glass eye, which fortunately is able to move to a limited extent with her functioning eye. The Minister may be able to imagine the terrible effect that all of that had on a teenage girl growing up in the early part of this century. Her self-confidence was badly damaged, too.
As the arthritis gradually abated, Samara was left with a common consequence of the condition, refractory uveitis, which often causes blindness even with the best treatments currently available. Her right eye—her only eye—is now severely affected. So far, despite a paralysed iris, a stuck-down pupil and a developing cataract in her remaining eye, her sight has been partially protected by the use of a drug called mycophenolate, which together with methotrexate is commonly used to treat uveitis.
Those drugs impair the white blood cells that promote the inflammation that causes uveitis. However, despite treatment with those drugs over the past eight years, the vision in Samara’s only eye continues to deteriorate. That is why her eye specialist at Calderdale Royal hospital in Halifax, Mr Teifi James, believes that in order to save her sight, she needs to be prescribed an anti-TNF drug such as Humira—adalimumab.
An anti-TNF drug is a monoclonal antibody that specifically targets tumour necrosis factor alpha. Because of the way in which it is manufactured, it is called a biologic. TNF is involved in causing inflammation in a number of autoimmune and immune-mediated disorders. Those diseases probably cause too much TNF to be produced, modifying the body’s immune response and causing inflammation. Anti-TNF drugs reduce the amount of TNF in the body. They are expensive and may have side effects that could be severe, but, with appropriate monitoring and care, such effects are rare. In fact, they are much less common than the many problematic side effects of corticosteroids.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for bringing this issue to Westminster Hall. The Minister will be seeking to improve the success rate of anti-TNF drugs. Many universities across the United Kingdom are looking at how to improve medication for those with eye ailments. We have two in Northern Ireland, which are Queen’s University Belfast and, in particular, Ulster University—
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. He is right. The more studies carried out across the country at university level, the better it will be for patients suffering from refractory uveitis.
The anti-TNF drugs switch off the molecule that creates the inflammation in the first place and are therefore far more effective than corticosteroids in cases such as Samara’s. I am sure that Queen’s University Belfast and many others can confirm that.
Last year, Samara married her fiancé, Ben, and the couple now want to start a family. However, it is not at all advisable for her to become pregnant while taking mycophenolate, because it may well cause a miscarriage or birth defects. An anti-TNF drug could allow her to retain her eyesight and probably to conceive safely and be able to see her child grow up.
Let me move on to why adalimumab or infliximab should be available immediately on NHS prescription for adults with sight-threatening uveitis. I am aware that the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence is about to conduct a multiple-technology appraisal of adalimumab and infliximab and that responses to the draft must be received by 16 December—this time next week. From my conversations with Teifi James, one of the country’s leading eye surgeons, and from my research into that treatment it would seem that drugs such as Humira are highly effective in the treatment of uveitis, so much so that researchers in the Sycamore trial in Bristol, to which the Minister referred in his letter to me of 4 November, have stopped recruiting to it because the children being treated are doing so well on the drug. However, NHS England did not take that into account when it made its most recent decision on the use of adalimumab and infliximab for the treatment of adult uveitis alone.
According to Mr James, approximately 120 patients with sight-threatening uveitis are waiting for anti-TNF treatments in England, whereas patients in Scotland currently have access to adalimumab and infliximab. Treatment using Humira costs just under £10,000 a year per patient, which means that approval of the use of this drug for treating refractory uveitis alone would cost no more than £1.2 million a year.
I commend the argument that my hon. Friend is making on behalf of his constituents. I too have been contacted by a constituent about this issue, who points to the excellent work being done by the Olivia’s Vision charity, which my hon. Friend may have heard of. My constituent says:
“My daughter currently suffers from Uveitis and is receiving Infliximab to treat the condition, so far successfully. I would like to live in the hope that this would be available to her in the future should her conditions change, and indeed others to whom this could be a sight saving drug.”
Is it not important that patients such as my constituent’s daughter have that assurance?
I agree with my right hon. Friend. In fact, the Olivia’s Vision charity has been in touch with me and offered its full support for this debate and any future effects of it, which will hopefully include a decision from the Government that both infliximab and adalimumab will be available on the NHS. Those anti-TNF drugs are clearly completely effective in the treatment of refractory uveitis alone. I will talk a bit about the effects of anti-TNF drugs on other conditions.
I greatly appreciate the hon. Gentleman giving me time to speak. For information, I am an eye doctor. Does he agree that what is important with severe conditions such as refractory uveitis is the principle that it must be up to the senior clinician—no one else; not NHS England and not a Minister—to decide if and when these treatments should be prescribed, and that the clinician must not be prevented from doing so?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her contribution, especially given her expert knowledge in the field. I agree 100% with her; it should be for clinicians to make such judgments and decisions, provided the drug is deemed safe. Enough testing and evaluation has so far been done to show that these drugs are not only safe but highly effective.
The point I was going to make, before those helpful interventions, was that it would cost no more than £1.2 million per year for all the patients in England to be treated with adalimumab or infliximab. To put that in context, I ask this question of the Minister: what would be the cost of paying benefits to all the young adults—most of the sufferers are young, working adults—who will suffer from sight-threatening uveitis for the rest of their lives if they lost their remaining sight for lack of a sight-saving drug that has already proven highly effective, as the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr Mathias) said? Surely the taxes that they pay now and will pay in the future would more than outweigh the cost of allowing the use of this medication, never mind the additional cost of paying benefits to blind people who can no longer be as economically productive.
Teifi James is one of about 50 eye surgeons in England who specialise in the management and treatment of uveitis, out of a total of around 1,200 eye consultants in the country. He and his colleagues know from their work and the clinical evidence that adalimumab and infliximab work well, yet they are being denied the opportunity to prescribe that sight-saving treatment. Members may be forgiven for assuming that the use of biologic drugs such as adalimumab is a novel step, but that is not so. Teifi James first used Campath, one of the original monoclonal antibody therapies, to treat ocular disease as long ago as 1997. Uveitis specialists had been effectively using infliximab and adalimumab in appropriate cases for over a decade since 2000, until the NHS reorganisations changed the commissioning regulations. English uveitis specialists are frustrated that the treatments they had been using have become inaccessible as a consequence of recent changes to NHS commissioning.
If Samara or any of the other 120 young adult sufferers of uveitis were suffering from another condition as well, such as Crohn’s disease or arthritis, they could be prescribed these drugs, which would prevent the further development of uveitis. Sadly, however, without multiple conditions, uveitis alone cannot be treated with Humira or similar anti-TNF medication. I hope the Minister and anyone else listening to this debate will agree that that is highly unfair and just plain wrong.
As I have said, Samara’s remaining vision in her right eye is now failing. Mr James can operate on her eye to remove the cataract and correct the problems she is currently experiencing, but he is reluctant to do so unless she is established on treatment with Humira. He feels that the risks are too great on her present medication.
I hope the Minister will answer the following questions when he responds. First, does he acknowledge that time is of the essence and that young adults in danger of losing their eye sight cannot wait for sight-saving treatment much longer? Secondly, will he use the points I have made today to persuade NICE to speed up its review? Thirdly, will he offer my constituent, Samara Ullmann, and the 120 other patients like her the hope that a treatment senior clinicians say is highly effective can be used for their benefit without further delay? Finally, does he agree that Samara should have the chance to have a family and to see her children grow up, just like every other parent in the country?
May I start by thanking and congratulating the hon. Member for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton) on securing the debate? I am grateful to him for giving me advance notice of the issues he has raised. We serve our constituents best in debates such as this when there is a spirit of non-partisan co-operation, and he is the very embodiment of that.
The hon. Gentleman spoke incredibly fluently on behalf of his constituent, Samara Ullmann. He and I have discussed this issue, and he has raised it with the Department in recent months. I pay tribute to his work on his constituent’s behalf and, most of all, to Samara and all of those who suffer with this condition. One of my privileges in this ministerial role is to see the extraordinary patience, fortitude, courage and force of life spirit with which so many people with ill-met or unmet conditions survive. It drives me on in my work to try to accelerate the landscape and get innovate medicines and treatments to those people more quickly.
I will say something about the condition and then try to address the points raised by the hon. Gentleman. As most Members here will perhaps know, uveitis, or inflammation of the uveal tract, is the term used to describe inflammation of any structure within the eye that, when very severe, may cause visual loss. It can lead to blindness through either direct damage to the light-sensitive retina or secondary complications such as glaucoma. Uveitis is uncommon. It is estimated that two to five in every 10,000 people will be affected by it in the UK every year. It usually affects people aged 20 to 59, but can also occur in children. Despite being uncommon, it is a leading cause of visual impairment in the UK.
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. Patients experience a whole range of associated conditions.
In severe cases, treatment to try to prevent sight loss requires drugs that suppress immune cells. The drugs in standard use across the world include prednisolone and immunosuppressant drugs, which work in over 60% of patients. For the remainder, the drugs do not work or the patients suffer serious side effects that prevent the drugs from being used to their full potential. The next step in treatment is the use of a group of drugs known as biologics. As the hon. Member for Leeds North East said, those drugs are very specialised and designed to focus on specific molecules released during inflammation from cells, suppressing the inflammation in doing so.
TNF inhibitors are biologic drugs that suppress the physiologic response to tumour necrosis factor, which is part of the inflammatory response. Humira and Remicade are two anti-TNF alpha treatments that are licensed and NICE-approved for the treatment of adults with a range of conditions, including rheumatoid and psoriatic arthritis, ankylosing spondylitis and inflammatory bowel diseases, including Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. In terms of the latter, I understand that the hon. Gentleman has been supporting his constituents by raising awareness for those living with a debilitating bowel disease by supporting Crohn’s and colitis awareness week, which has just ended. NICE has not yet appraised any anti-TNF drugs for the treatment of uveitis. I shall say more about that in a moment.
Decisions about funding for new treatments and drugs that are for rarer conditions, such as uveitis, and which have not been considered by NICE are made by NHS England as part of its specialised commissioning function. NHS England operates a horizon-scanning process to identify new treatments, and its clinical reference groups advise on the development of services for patients and keep published evidence under review. When NICE is not considering a therapy, NHS England can examine the evidence base and may propose commissioning treatments through its commissioning policy development process.
Turning to clinical experts, my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Dr Mathias) made a really important point. Much as I would like to be able to pull a lever and accelerate treatments in response to very eloquent advocacy in this House, it is completely appropriate—I can see the hon. Member for Leeds North East nodding—that such decisions are made by the patients, clinicians and clinical experts, advised by NICE on the basis of the very best evidence available. Sometimes the collection of that evidence and the processing of those appraisals can be frustratingly slow, not least for the patients, but it is important that the process is done well.
The clinical experts at NHS England have considered the use of Humira and Remicade as treatment options for adult patients with severe refractory uveitis. NHS England concluded that there was insufficient evidence to support the routine commissioning of those treatments. NHS England is, however, awaiting publication of the Visual clinical trial report in order to consider revising its commissioning policy in the light of the study’s outcomes. The trial report is expected to be published in a peer review journal in early 2016, at which stage NHS England will consider submitting a revised policy as an in-year service development.
The use of Remicade for children with severe refractory uveitis has also been considered by NHS England. Again, NHS England concluded that there was, as yet, insufficient evidence to support its routine commissioning at this time. That decision will be reviewed in April 2017.
On 11 November, NHS England published an interim clinical commissioning policy on the use of Humira for children with severe refractory uveitis with onset in childhood. Its use is recommended in children aged two to 18 who meet the clinical criteria set out in the policy. The policy, which has been developed by NHS England’s clinical reference group for specialised ophthalmology services with support from clinicians and patient representatives, will benefit children whose sight is threatened by the condition, and for whom other treatments have proven ineffective. That is on an interim basis pending further evidence from the Sycamore clinical trial. The interim policy will be reviewed in 2016, once the full Sycamore trial data have been published. Humira for severe refractory uveitis in children is being commissioned and funded by NHS England through specialist regional centres.
I want to mention individual funding requests, which are important in this context. All treatments for uveitis up to and including the use of immunosuppressants remain funded by clinical commissioning groups. As hon. Members know, the NHS is legally required to fund treatments recommended in NICE technology appraisal guidance. In the absence of such guidance, any funding decisions should be made by NHS commissioners, including NHS England in respect of specialised services, based on an assessment of all the available evidence and an individual patient’s clinical circumstances.
The Minister talks about need. In a similar vein to other Members, I would like to highlight the need of a constituent of mine—a young lady called Olivia, aged 15, who is totally reliant on self-funded anti-TNF treatments to retain her eyesight. She is very concerned that when she reaches adulthood, she may no longer have access to that, which is why her parents, also constituents, have created a charity called Olivia’s Vision. Again, I ask—
My hon. Friend has eloquently raised his point. I am happy to look into that with him afterwards.
NHS England will consider individual funding requests for treatments not recommended by NICE to treat individuals whose clinician can demonstrate clinical exception. The NHS constitution states that patients have the right to expect local decisions on the funding of drugs and treatments
“to be made rationally following a proper consideration of the evidence.”
If an NHS commissioner decides not to fund a drug, it has a duty to explain that decision to the constituents of the hon. Member for Leeds North East and others.
I want to turn quickly to the hon. Gentleman’s specific questions and then deal with a couple of questions that really sit under this whole debate. Let me respond to his four questions. I completely agree that time is of the essence to anyone in danger of losing their eyesight and, yes, people should have the chance to have a family and we need to make sure that we are supporting patients in the appropriate way. We are working to speed up the process, so that effective medicines get to patients much more quickly, but we need to know that they work and to make sure that the benefits they bring to patients are commensurate with their cost to the NHS, which is why we have NICE, a world-leading expert in health economics.
I must clarify that NICE is not currently appraising either adalimumab or infliximab for uveitis. However, it is consulting stakeholders on a proposal to include adalimumab within the scope of the technology appraisal guidance that it is developing on its two other drugs for the treatment of uveitis. A final decision on referral will be taken once NICE has concluded that consultation. I am aware that evidence is emerging on the use of these drugs on the treatment of uveitis in adults. When the full evidence is available, both NICE and NHS England will be able to take that into account when considering whether anti-TNF treatments should be made routinely available on the NHS.
In the remaining moments, I want to touch on the underlying issues that this debate has helpfully flagged up. The pace of change in the biomedical space, the rate at which new drugs are being discovered and the power of genomics and informatics, giving us a new insight into diagnosis and treatment, is putting pressure on our traditional methods of assessing drugs. Traditionally, NICE has worked on a one-size-fits-all, health benefit, “yes or no”, quality-adjusted life-year basis. I have launched the accelerated access review partly to look at how we can better use the genomics and informatics in our health system and give NICE more freedoms to be able to fast-track treatments to the patients who we know will benefit.
That touches on the question of off-label use of drugs. When there is a proven benefit outside of an on-label indication, we need to be much better at getting that information to clinicians, so that they can prescribe drugs in an off-label indication more quickly. The burden of proof needs to be not only right, but appropriately set, so that where there is clear evidence, the system can respond more quickly.
The hon. Gentleman made an important point about the cost of benefits. The system at the moment is not great at measuring the full cost of a condition downstream, which is partly why we are putting such efforts into the digitalisation of the health service and into being able to measure the cost of treatment and a disease condition. When we have a benchmark of what the cost is to society after a diagnosis, we will have a much better benchmark for rewarding innovation.
I will happily deal with any other questions offline. We have had a very short amount of time, but I hope I have tackled the hon. Gentleman’s specific questions. I am grateful to him for raising the issue, and I hope I have given some signal as to where in the coming weeks and months we may be able to expect some helpful progress.
Question put and agreed to.
Electoral Integrity and Absent Votes
I beg to move,
That this House has considered electoral integrity and absent votes.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main, and to welcome the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose), to his place.
In this country, we pride ourselves on having free, fair, open and honest elections, but we are wrong. In too many parts of the UK, electoral fraud means that honest people’s votes are potentially invalidated by crooked votes. Our whole democratic system is being undermined and the votes of thousands of women of all ages are being regularly stolen by their menfolk. We are turning a blind eye, in effect, to regular breaches of section 115 of the Representation of the People Act 1983 in respect of undue influence.
In May’s general election, 9,372,449 postal votes were sent via Royal Mail. These issues are not new, and the Electoral Commission and Government know about them, but so far we have had very little by way of concerted action to tackle them. This subject has been raised in the media, most notably and compellingly by Radio 4’s “File on 4” investigation programme in March 2014, which focused on electoral fraud in Pendle, Woking and Derby. It was also brought up by my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Andrew Stephenson). With great courage and foresight, he raised the matter directly with Ministers on the Floor of the House three years ago during a debate on the Bill that became the Electoral Registration and Administration Act 2013.
Who can forget the words of the election commissioner and presiding judge Richard Mawrey, QC, after hearing the most well-known electoral fraud case in Birmingham in 2005—following events in 2004—which resulted in the conviction of five men? His written judgment referred to
“evidence of electoral fraud that would disgrace a banana republic”.
Is my hon. Friend aware that of course there are the open, overt, straight-down-the-line fraudsters at work, collecting ballots that are not their own, but even where that does not happen, within the individual household the privacy of the ballot is lost where voting slips are sent to the household and no one can keep their voting intentions to themselves?
My right hon. Friend makes a very apposite point, which I will elucidate on and develop later in my remarks. I thank him for his intervention.
Have things really changed in the past 11 years? Mr Justice Mawrey was quoted last year as saying that our present procedures are “wide open to fraud” and that
“serious fraud is inevitably going to continue”,
enabling the manufacture of votes on an industrial scale. He also stated just before this year’s general election:
“The law must be applied fairly and equally to everyone. Otherwise we are lost.”
We await the details of the review commissioned by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister on electoral fraud in the light of the appalling scandals uncovered in Tower Hamlets following the failure particularly of the Metropolitan Police Service to take timely and robust action. That fell instead to a number of courageous and concerned citizens, including my old friend Councillor Peter Golds CBE, via a petition to the High Court. The long overdue review is being undertaken by my right hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Sir Eric Pickles). It was announced in August and, as I understand it, will be published in the new year in order that we can look at what further options are available to address this continuing and, as I will make clear later, endemic and institutionalised abuse and illegality. I will touch on Tower Hamlets in particular.
For the record, I have not called this debate in the light of the Oldham West and Royton by-election result, nor even of the comments of the leader of the UK Independence party, but in his media comments in the wake of the by-election he did touch on some issues that I will raise today.
Of the 1,086 cases of electoral fraud reported to police in England between 2008 and 2013, 58% originated in just 10 of England’s 39 police areas. I speak as the Member of Parliament for Peterborough, a local authority that has featured for a number of years on the Electoral Commission’s watch list of local council areas with a high risk of electoral fraud. Regrettably, Peterborough has a recent history of criminal convictions as a result of electoral malpractice and fraud. Most recently, in 2008, there was the conviction of six men—three Labour activists and three Conservatives—for postal vote fraud arising out of the June 2004 local elections. My local authority has also had problems with personation and, to an extent, voter intimidation.
I accept that there are other serious areas of concern, which will most likely be the subject of my right hon. Friend’s review and report, that are of major import. One is the lack of a requirement for proper, valid voter identification when presenting oneself as a voter at a UK polling station. That is unprecedented and undoubtedly anomalous in a modern democracy, and there is clearly a major risk of personation. Another issue is the limit on the powers to challenge alleged personation in the confines of a polling place for presiding officers, even if they know that a person is not who they say they are. The other issue is the failure to put in place legislation to curtail voter intimidation in the environs of a polling station, which we have seen in many places across the country, including Peterborough, but which was systematic in Tower Hamlets.
I will not try the patience of the House, but Tower Hamlets was but the most egregious example of many troubling themes around abuses in our electoral system. They merely coalesced in one London borough as the most extreme and shocking example. In Tower Hamlets, supervision of the corrupt 2014 elections was led by Commander Graham McNulty, who previously had been the investigating officer on the Levy and Blair cash-for-peerages allegations and was later the officer harassed—that is the word—by the hon. Member for West Bromwich East (Mr Watson) to investigate, erroneously, the late Lord Brittan. Despite Lutfur Rahman and his agent being found guilty of seven different counts of corrupt practice after the longest election petition before a court in more than a century, nobody has been charged, including supporters of Rahman named and shamed for multiple election fraud. Why is that? Perhaps the Minister will touch on that.
For the avoidance of doubt, I think that it is incumbent on Ministers to respond in a timely way to the specific recommendations made recently by the Electoral Commission on the need for photo ID at polling stations on the Northern Ireland model—I see the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) in his place. To be fair, the Electoral Commission has raised these issues over a number of years and progress has been made, albeit slowly and by increment, on issues such as register stuffing with “ghost” voters, which individual electoral registration will mostly deal with, and the most egregious postal vote fraud methods, via the need for a signature and date of birth, but that will only half deal with the substantive issue to which I will refer later. I accept that there will always be a trade-off between accessibility to the voting system and electoral integrity. It will never be easy or simple to get that balance right.
The Electoral Commission has at least monitored trends and collected data on electoral fraud and has commissioned specialist academic research—more of that later—with an issues paper being published in 2013 and a further comprehensive and detailed report being issued in January 2014. It is a matter of regret and disappointment that the previous, coalition Government—I absolve the Minister of responsibility for this—failed adequately to address the recommendations in that report.
Where I part company with the Electoral Commission and, to an extent, Ministers is on what I see as a degree of complacency in their responses. Of course I commend the extra money for fraud prevention in high-risk areas, but I am disappointed by the blanket rejection of at least considering returning to the pre-2001 regime for postal votes and by the rather anodyne revised code of conduct for campaigners, which is frankly superfluous and lacks any real sanction in law for miscreants and those inclined to unethical or criminal behaviour—a point raised in the “File on 4” documentary.
There is much to be done to tackle electoral fraud in all its forms, but for the purposes of our debate, I will focus on absent or postal votes. It might be worth examining, by way of background, how we came to be where we are now. Postal voting was first used in 1918 for armed forces personnel serving overseas. It was reintroduced in 1945 in similar circumstances, and 1948 saw postal voting extended to certain groups of civilians including those who were physically incapacitated, those unable to vote without making a journey by sea or air or because of the nature of their occupation, and those who were no longer residing at their qualifying address.
Following recommendations made by the Select Committee on Home Affairs in 1983, the Government extended the right to apply for an absent vote in 1985, and the rules were further refined in 1989. The exception was Northern Ireland, where there was already widespread concern about electoral abuse. In 1999, a parliamentary working group chaired by the then Home Office Minister, the right hon. Member for Knowsley (Mr Howarth), recommended that postal voting applications should be simplified and allowed on demand to all voters. The Government legislated in 2000 to implement those changes, which came into effect in 2001.
In its reports on the all-postal vote elections, the Electoral Commission drew back from its earlier recommendation for all-postal voting as standard. Its research showed that a large minority of people wanted to retain the option of voting at a polling station. The Commission, therefore—thankfully—recommended the development of a new model that involved multiple voting methods, including postal voting, rather than proceeding with elections run entirely by all-postal voting.
Suffice it to say that the process for exercising one’s right to vote by post or proxy is no less complex now than it was in 1999, and turnout for general elections has fallen from 71% in 1997 to 59%—a post-war low—in 2001, rising to 66% earlier this year. That serves to refute the idea, held by those who are worried about voter disengagement, of absent voting as a panacea. Our collective obsession with electoral turnout has, surely, for too long obscured the focus on clean, honest and fair elections as the absolute priority, and that is unacceptable.
The Electoral Commission’s response to the Pickles review is detailed, thought-provoking and helpful. It will allow Ministers to access important academic research supporting a key question—perhaps the most controversial aspect of my remarks—at the heart of this debate: the reasons for the growing evidence of criminal electoral malpractice, centred on postal vote fraud, in the British Bangladeshi and British Pakistani communities and diaspora. The debate is not party political; no party has a monopoly on virtue, and all major parties have been party to fraudulent electoral activities over the last 15 years or so. We are talking not about stigmatising a particular group or community, but about protecting our democracy and the precious faith and trust that people have in the voting system.
I am grateful for the work of academics such as Stuart Wilks-Heeg, who published a paper in 2008, on behalf of the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust, on “Purity of Elections in the UK: Causes for Concern”; and Eleanor Hill, of the Bradford University school of historical studies, who published a paper in 2012 entitled “Ethnicity and Democracy: A Study into Biraderi”, which has laid the groundwork for more recent empirical studies.
The Electoral Commission commissioned research from the University of Liverpool and the Centre on Dynamics of Ethnicity at the University of Manchester, as well as from the social research centre NatCen. In January this year, they published two excellent, compelling and detailed qualitative studies entitled, respectively, “Understanding electoral fraud vulnerability in Pakistani and Bangladeshi origin communities in England” and “Elections, voting and electoral fraud: An exploratory study focusing on British Pakistanis and Bangladeshis”. The findings supported the Electoral Commission’s stated belief that, inter alia,
“electoral fraud is more likely to be committed by or in support of candidates standing for election in areas which are largely or predominately populated by…those with roots in parts of Pakistan or Bangladesh.”
The commissioned studies suggested that
“extended family and community networks may have been mobilised to secure the support of large numbers of electors in some areas, effectively constituting a ‘block vote’”
“the wider availability of postal voting in Great Britain since 2001 may have increased the risk of electoral fraud associated with this approach, as the greater safeguards of secrecy provided by polling stations have been removed.”
The academic research focused on interviews with political activists and non-political local residents in those high-risk areas, and it pinpointed the following cultural and structural trends. The reciprocal, hierarchical and patriarchal nature of kinship networks may mean that pressure is put on people to vote for particular candidates or parties, especially within family groups, as my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) has made clear. Individuals may be made to feel as though they have no choice in the matter, or they may, in fact, have no choice. That applies particularly to young women and older women, many of whom are economically disadvantaged. It their 2014 study, academics from Manchester University found that, for instance, Pakistani women are more likely to have their registration forms filled in by the male head of the household than to fill in the forms themselves.
Other problems in those communities are: low levels of public awareness about what is acceptable campaigning and what constitutes fraud; low levels of awareness about how to report electoral fraud; low levels of literacy and lack of English skills, which exacerbate those problems; and reduced political activity, or complete lack of activity, by mainstream parties in too many areas, which gives so-called community leaders free rein to claim propriety over large numbers of families, whose votes they can marshal and direct as they think fit. That is the regrettable flipside of an understandable collective need for ethnic mobilisation and solidarity, but it gives rise to practices that are inimical to our democratic values.
In too many communities, it is regarded as quite normal for political activists to engage in “farming” of postal votes on the doorstep, or even to fill in the ballots at home once signatures and dates of birth have been added, before transporting them to the town hall or polling station. That is regarded as part of the process; it is well understood and not seen as irregular. The University of Manchester reported that the biraderi networks
“may undermine the principle of voters’ individual and free choice through a range of social pressures such as respect for the decision of the elders at its mildest extreme, through to undue influence where in some instances access to individual ballots of women and adult children can be refused by the elders.”
Mainstream tolerance of such block voting is nothing new, although that makes it no less reprehensible. Lord Hattersley wrote in his 2003 biography of his polling day experience in the February 1974 general election:
“I won with an increased majority...the well organised and invariably loyal Kashmiris had cast their disciplined vote early in the day.”
The reports produced for the Electoral Commission highlighted the insufficiency of safeguards for voting procedures. One report found that respondents believed that there was a
“lack of law enforcement around fraudulent applications for postal votes…undue influence and intimidation both when filling out the vote at home with others present, and during the handling of the vote by party activists, community members and candidates themselves”.
Much more research must be done into those issues by the Electoral Commission and others. We cannot know for certain the scale of the problem and how it impacts on elections in our country at every level.
In the interim, I suggest the following measures. Ministers must, as a matter of urgency, consider and respond to the Electoral Commission’s 2014 report and to the findings of the Pickles review. Existing polling station voting vulnerabilities around ID, personation, intimidation and the flaws in the Representation of the People Act 1983 must be addressed soon. There must be a proper review of individual electoral registration to ensure its efficacy in respect of electoral register stuffing. Funds must be set aside for local authorities in high-risk areas to bid for money to work with their local police to investigate properly allegations of electoral fraud, which are often time consuming and costly to investigate. Guidance must be issued to the Crown Prosecution Service and the police to ensure that they take a much more proactive and robust approach to investigating electoral fraud, and that they are seen to be doing so. Finally, new legislative sanctions must be established by means of criminal law in respect of compulsion and intimidation of someone to apply for a postal or proxy vote, alteration of another person’s postal vote application form and the transit of another person’s postal vote documentation. It should be a criminal offence for anyone other than an authorised person to open or alter a completed postal ballot pack—either the ballot paper or the postal voting statement—before it has been received by the proper returning officer.
Ultimately, I believe that none of those measures alone will substantially reduce electoral fraud in our postal votes regime, and that serious thought must be given to returning to the tried and tested system of application in the case of illness, infirmity, military service or work commitments. That system gave us, with the universal franchise, a turnout of 84% in the 1950 general election, and 78% as recently as 1992. Our present system has been summed up perfectly: voting, once a “private act in public”, is now, owing to postal vote fraud, a “public act in private.”
We are currently condoning the theft of thousands of votes of our fellow citizens, many of whom are women—a situation that would shame Emmeline Pankhurst and make a third-world despot blush. We need to ask: what price honesty and fair play, and what price our reputation at home and abroad as the beacon of parliamentary democracy?
I thank the hon. Member for Peterborough (Mr Jackson) for setting the scene on the subject of electoral registration. He mentioned Northern Ireland a couple of times and I want to add some of my thoughts. I expected more people to contribute to the debate. None the less, it is always a pleasure to do so.
The issue is important in Northern Ireland, and we have taken some substantial steps forward. The shadow Minister and particularly the Minister will probably give some detailed information about what is happening in Northern Ireland. If I were to put forward just one thought in this debate, it would be this: look to Northern Ireland, the changes we have made and the steps that we have taken. That should be the precedent for the whole United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in addressing the issue.
In this day and age, surely we should have a flawless electoral system and elections that are completely free of any fraud or deceit. Following the recent by-election—this is an observation and nothing more—according to The Daily Telegraph:
“Police could be called in to investigate alleged fraud at the…Oldham by-election after council staff said some voters in polling booths ‘had no idea what they were doing there’”.
I do not know how true that is but it is a quotation from the paper, and it puts a question mark over how the system works. An unprecedented 100% of postal votes went to one party and, although it cannot be confirmed that there were any anomalies, eyebrows must surely be raised at such a staggering statistic. Many ask that question. It is not a reflection on those who vote, because they vote in the way that they wish to, but it strikes a question mark in many minds. I do not seek to make any accusations, but the fact that there is even the possibility of electoral fraud or deceit in this day and age should ring alarm bells for all of us.
In Northern Ireland in 2010, a parliamentary constituency—Fermanagh and South Tyrone—was decided by four votes. The decision was taken to court so that the honesty of the system could be looked at and verified. Three of the votes were removed, as the Minister, who is nodding his head, knows. The reality is that, technically speaking, that election was won by one vote. I am not saying that there was any fraud—people can make their minds up—but a court decision was taken, which changed the voting margin. It was a truly exceptional example.
With elections being run so tight, we need a flawless system to ensure that those who take their time to inform themselves and vote are doing so as equals with an equal weight to their vote, confident that the rest of the electorate will vote honestly and fairly. The Daily Telegraph also uncovered that a number of complaints were filed, with the police alleging electoral fraud at the general election in May and in the European and council elections in the previous May.
The professionals at the Electoral Commission do their very best to ensure electoral integrity, but there are still examples of the system not working and being open to deceit and fraud. More needs to be done, as the hon. Member for Peterborough said. We have the resources and the technology to make voter fraud a thing of the past, and we should be taking steps as a matter of urgency. The former Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the right hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Sir Eric Pickles), said:
“Within Whitehall as a minister, I found a complete reluctance by officials to take action on the warnings from local councillors and journalists of systematic corruption in the mayoral administration in Tower Hamlets. I would argue that state officialdom is in denial over the real state of electoral fraud in 21st-century Britain. The new Conservative government is no longer prepared to turn a blind eye to Britain’s modern-day rotten boroughs.”
As the Minister is nodding, I would expect that the steps to change that will be made. We should look to such examples of people who have opened their eyes to electoral fraud and are getting on with the business of eradicating it as a matter of urgency.
In Northern Ireland, we have taken steps forward on the electoral system, the regulations and the registration. One of the first things that happens in an individual registration is that someone calls to check who lives in the house; that means that we can confirm that there are so many people in the house. Those people are checked individually. Physical inability to attend polling stations in person is confirmed by doctors. If people go on holiday, they have to provide travel documentation to prove that they are away. There are real meaty conditions to ensure that those things happen.
Many years ago, it is rumoured—although many would say that it is factual—that there were those who voted from beyond the grave, which is quite a talent: quite impossible, if we are truthful. Changes were put in place to ensure that that did not happen. There were also houses from which a number of people were able to vote, but the only “people” who could access those houses had four legs and a tail. It was quite obvious that no human being could vote from those houses, so significant and direct measures and systems were put in place to ensure that that did not happen.
When it comes to addressing these issues, I suggest that we look to Northern Ireland—at how the electoral commissioner has addressed the issue there, and how we have taken the steps to ensure that electoral fraud is a thing of the past and that postal votes are registered and used by the person they are given to. I believe we have the system of a fair, equal, honest and integral vote, in whatever election it may be. Everybody who votes—and they expect their vote to be the one that will change things—has the ability to change the person and the party. We have set that precedent. I urge the House, the Minister and the shadow Minister to reply accordingly.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Mr Jackson) on securing this important debate. I wish to expand on just a couple of points in the time allowed. First, I congratulate the Government on holding firm on individual electoral registration and the timescales in which that is to be introduced. That is an important step forward in combating potential fraud.
Secondly, I listened with great interest to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) who spoke about the steps that have been taken over time to secure the sanctity of the ballot in Northern Ireland. Yet we have heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough that there are troubles now in England, particularly in some of our major cities. It is time that the Government took seriously the fraud issues that are, unfortunately, taking place in some of our towns and cities and considered very carefully whether we should not be introducing some of the safeguards that were introduced in Northern Ireland some time ago.
I am personally coming around to the idea of showing some form of ID at the polling station. My hon. Friend talked at length about the postal ballot and I am interested in the Minister’s reply. In respect of potential impersonation at the polling station, nothing can be more frustrating for a resident citizen of our country than to turn up at the polling station and be told, as happens in a few cases in every election, “I’m sorry—supposedly you’ve already voted.” Requiring no form of ID to be shown at a polling station remains a loophole for those who want to commit fraud.
We need to gather more data. After elections there is always anecdotal talk of people turning up at polling stations and being told that their vote has already been cast. We need to know the scale of that problem to know whether the remedy is worse than the disease.
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough that British democracy should be sacrosanct. People should know that the result of a ballot, whether it be in local, national or European elections—or indeed in elections to our devolved Parliaments—is absolutely correct. That becomes even more important on those occasions when the margin is four votes or one vote. Any fraud can change the result of our elections under a first-past-the-post system.
This intervention will be swift. We took those steps on identification in Northern Ireland, and the steps were sometimes hard. There are many forms of identification—driving licences, bus passes, passports, firearms certificates and benefits cards—and so long as they contain a photograph, they prove who people are. Yes, it might sometimes be an inconvenience, but it is a good idea because it works.
The hon. Gentleman makes that point extremely powerfully. All that someone needs to commit electoral fraud under our system is a really good telling regime at the polling station; to knock out the postal voters; then, in the dying hours of polling, they can send people along to impersonate those people who the system shows have not already voted. That is exactly what used to happen in too many towns in Northern Ireland, I am afraid. We do not know for sure to what extent it might be happening here.
As I said earlier, after every single election, whether it is a nationwide election or a large set of local elections, there are always people who go to their local paper—the hon. Gentleman can look through the cuttings—or who complain to the returning officer, “I went to the polling station to vote, but I was told that my vote had already been cast.”
The evidence is not strong in the way that perhaps it was in Northern Ireland, but it is a loophole in our system. As the hon. Member for Strangford says, it does not have to be a passport or driving licence, but requiring any picture ID, at the very least, would make it incredibly difficult to perpetrate a major fraud, because people who wanted to do so would have to forge lots of bus passes or similar items. I would be interested if the Minister gave us some feedback on that issue, as well as on postal voting, which was comprehensively covered by my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough.
It is interesting that we are having this debate as we begin to celebrate international Human Rights Day, because article 25 of the 1948 declaration of human rights called on nation states to provide free and fair elections on the basis of universal and equal suffrage. I do not mean to suggest complacency or to get into self-congratulatory backslapping but, from a global perspective, we have reason to be proud of the systems that we have in this country and of the level of respect that we have for the democratic process. That is not to say that there are not concerns or that there should not be changes. I will talk about some of those in a minute, but overall our democracy, and our electoral democracy, is in reasonable shape.
As I have previously suggested in similar Westminster Hall debates, the Scottish referendum last year was an exemplar of how to do things right, but I remind Members that probably the greatest compromised election in recent times also happened in Scotland. At the 2007 Scottish general election, fully 7% of the votes cast were rejected. That happened for two reasons, neither of which has to do with deliberate fraud or mal-intent. The first was that, because the local council elections took place on the same day as the Scottish Parliament elections—the latter of which involved two different ballot papers—there was an unprecedented degree of confusion among the electorate, and an awful lot of people simply did not know how to exercise their right to vote. The second reason, which I am glad to say we have dispensed with, was that the then Scottish Government invested rather too much public money in a number of electronic counting machines that simply were not fit for purpose and seemed unable to do the job for which they were bought.
I am pleased to say that we have won the argument with the Government, because they did not rule out holding the EU referendum on the day of another election until the House clearly and explicitly decided that that should not happen. One of the procedures that we should use to protect our democratic process is to make sure that, each and every time a question is asked, it is a specific question that cannot be confused with anything else.
I was unaware of what the hon. Member for Peterborough (Mr Jackson) was going to say in this debate, but I note his concerns, which fall into two parts. One is the question of deliberate electoral fraud, in which people, either individually or by conspiring with others, deliberately abuse the process to cheat. We are in a good position because, in a competitive, multi-party democracy, there is an opportunity for parties to keep tabs on each other and to monitor the process. There is also a degree of good will and sincerity among our electoral registration officers, who are very vigilant and aware of the possibility of fraud and the need to do something about it. In my experience, the police, and others with responsibility for taking action, take electoral fraud very seriously. Again, that is a healthy development.
The hon. Gentleman also raised the problem of familial pressure being applied in some communities, particularly to influence women’s votes. I do not deny that that happens, but I am unsure of what action the state or the public authorities can take to prevent it from happening, apart from some of the things that we are doing through individual electoral registration and, of course, the education campaign to encourage everyone to recognise that their vote is a precious thing that relates to them, and to them alone, and that they should not be influenced by anyone else.
I know Members are concerned about the dramatic increase in postal votes, and we are clearly now in a situation where the ability to vote by post is a choice—people do not have to fulfil many criteria to exercise a postal vote. I see that as a positive development because it encourages people to participate in the election process. There are lots of people for whom it is more convenient to exercise their vote by post. If we are going to look at restricting that by putting hurdles in the way of people who seek to vote by post, we need to be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
We are talking about electoral integrity, and I will finish by putting the issue in a slightly wider context. There are things that we can do. The Scottish referendum was an exemplar, with 97% of the people who were entitled to register being registered to vote and 85% of them turning out to vote. There were a number of reasons for that. One was that we widened the franchise and included 16 and 17-year-olds. I know that the House has rejected that model for the EU referendum, but plenty has been said about it by all parties and we will have to consider it again before this Parliament is over.
I will finish with this point. We also need to consider making voting easier, simpler and more contemporary. We really need to consider electronic voting in our processes. People trust the ability of the internet—
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairpersonship, Mrs Main.
I offer my congratulations to the hon. Member for Peterborough (Mr Jackson) on securing this important debate. All of us who are democrats and who believe in the efficacy of elections also believe that those elections must be above board and entirely fair, and that all the participants in those elections must respect their integrity. That is important in itself, but it is also important that elections are seen widely in a democracy to be fair and beyond reproach.
The various issues that the hon. Member for Peterborough has brought to our attention have to be taken very seriously. He mentioned the Electoral Commission. Indeed, the Electoral Commission, among other bodies, has taken the allegations and examples of corruption and fraud very seriously, and it has presented to the Government’s anti-corruption champion—the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General, the right hon. Member for West Suffolk (Matthew Hancock)—detailed measures about how the electoral system can be tightened up. Those are very positive measures.
The Electoral Commission has suggested four measures, and I would like the Minister to respond to those recommendations. Before that, however, it is worth noting that it is not simply what we have in terms of regulations and electoral law that matters. A fact that needs to be highlighted is that a lot depends on the political parties themselves to make sure that they police their own candidates, to ensure that those candidates and their supporters are aware of the law and fully respect it. That is very important. Responsibility rests not only with the Government, the Electoral Commission and others, but with the political parties themselves and the individuals concerned.
As has been mentioned, we are seeing the introduction of individual electoral registration. It is to be welcomed in principle, because one of the key aspects underlying IER is the new emphasis placed on individuals rather than the head of a household, which accurately reflects society’s changing nature. IER is more modern and also puts greater responsibility on the individual in recognising the importance of the electoral process as a whole and their role within it, although we all regret—at least, Labour Members certainly regret—that its introduction has been rushed. We have our own reasons to believe why that was the case.
The essential point I want to make is that although all of us are united in total condemnation of electoral fraud, it is important to keep such fraud in perspective. The perception among many sections of the electorate is that electoral fraud is quite widespread, which is damaging to democracy. However, it is important to make the point that that perception is not based on concrete fact. As the Electoral Commission said in the evidence it submitted to the Government’s anti-corruption champion:
“The evidence currently available to us does not support the conclusion that electoral fraud is widespread in the UK.”
The hon. Gentleman is making his remarks in a typically eloquent way, but is it not a matter of regret that the chief executive of Woking Borough Council and the electoral returning officer for the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Jonathan Lord) said on “File on 4”, the programme I referred to in my remarks, that in 12 years he had never presided over a wholly clean election in that borough? I agree with what the hon. Gentleman has said, but surely that is a lamentable state of affairs.
Elections have to be clean, of course, but quite often there is a fine dividing line between the rough and tumble of electoral politics and actual electoral fraud. When we talk about fraudulent activity, we have to rely on evidence and hard facts being presented. If in that programme and elsewhere there have been actual examples of fraud and clear evidence of it, then it is right that an investigation is made and action taken. However, I return to my central point. Yes, there is plenty of tittle-tattle, plenty of suggestions and plenty of accusations, but all too often there is very little hard and fast evidence, and we have to go on evidence.
It is important to keep our debate in perspective. Of course that must not be used as an excuse not to do anything, and of course the system must be tightened up, but at the same time let us recognise that our democracy is one of the finest in the world, and we must do everything to defend it, while at the same time making sure that it is as watertight as possible.
Finally, as we move to a system of IER, it is important that we have, above all else, the desire to encourage and to make as easy as possible the participation of our voters in the electoral system. There is a fine dividing line, but we have a system that is open and fair, and that encourages people to vote and facilitates their involvement in the democratic process, and at the same time our system must be monitored and policed effectively.
Surely none of us would want to see a system in place that was as onerous as some Members have perhaps suggested, which would be a disincentive to people to go along and cast their vote. If we made the system too cumbersome, that would undermine the democratic process itself. Therefore, in the interests of democracy and democratic participation, we always have to strike a balance between what is reasonable to do in order to encourage as many people as possible to engage, while at the same time having a system that is above reproach and that is based on fairness and integrity.
It is a pleasure to have you looking after us this afternoon, Mrs Main; it is good to see you in the Chair.
Let me start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Mr Jackson) on securing this debate on a tremendously important issue, which is perhaps slightly more topical than when he originally tried to secure it. However, that just shows his foresight and that he has his finger on the pulse of the popular mood. I think all of us here agree that this is a very important issue, but we tend to blithely assume that things are all right because historically this country has had a democracy to be proud of. Of course, it is up to us as the current incumbents in that democracy to ensure that we continue to be alive to any threat to it, and therefore it is important that we continue to address this issue regularly.
May I also remind all present and anybody who analyses this debate in future that the right way to deal with allegations of electoral fraud of any kind is to take them to the police? That is absolutely essential. The police are the investigating authority, and they are the people who have the skills and the resources to investigate properly. It is essential for the health of our democracy that any concerns are reported properly, so that the police can get to work and get their teeth into anything that looks suspicious.
During the last four years, we have had a steady flow—not a huge rush, but a steady flow—of electoral fraud cases. There were 268 in 2011, 408 in 2012, 178 in 2013 and 272 in 2014. That is not a deluge, but it is not zero either, and there is some concern that there may be other cases that are not being properly reported and may be going under the radar, which I think is one of the reasons why my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough secured this debate.
If anyone present or anyone looking at this debate afterwards has any concerns and, specifically, any detailed recommendations about how the system could be improved—we have heard a number of suggestions from all quarters during the debate—I would encourage them to mention them without delay to my right hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Sir Eric Pickles), who was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough. My right hon. Friend is in the process of finalising his report and has collected recommendations on how to deal with electoral fraud. The Government will be waiting for that report to come to us. We will react to it once it is in our hands and we have had a chance to study it and consider its implications. It is an opportunity for anyone with concerns and, in particular, specific recommendations about how the system can be improved—goodness knows, no system is ever perfect—to strike now. The iron is, if not yet hot, then certainly getting pretty warm, and it will be hot shortly. Now is the moment.
My hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough also rightly mentioned that 9 million postal votes were cast. Concerns are regularly voiced—albeit not always necessarily evidenced beyond the 200 to 300 or so cases each year—about undue influence when postal votes are in the hands of the voter, particularly within families with a strong tradition of patriarchy. It is hard to prove whether that is happening, but the suspicions none the less persist. All of us in this room will no doubt have heard those suspicions voiced to us by colleagues in Parliament and by constituents.
It is absolutely right—I hope all of us here would sign up to this principle—that we should not assume that there is a necessary contradiction or choice between having an electoral system that allows any eligible elector who wants to cast their vote to do so cleanly, conveniently and easily, so that turnout is maximised to the greatest possible extent, and the notion that there should be reasonable checks to ensure that the person casting the vote is eligible, is the person they say they are and is not subject to unfair pressure or influence in any way. Those two principles are equally vital. If we start saying that one is subservient to the other, we are on an extremely slippery slope, democratically speaking. Both principles apply and are important, and anyone who tries to pretend that we need to compromise one at the expense of the other is on dangerous ground indeed.
One of the only points on which I respectfully disagree with my hon. Friend was where he mentioned some turnout figures for successive general elections. He is absolutely right that general election turnouts have been higher in the past. I fear that factors other than the availability of postal votes may be involved in that. I suspect those factors are particularly to do with public attitudes to politics, public attitudes to politicians, dare I say it, and general levels of societal democratic engagement. There are probably more things going on than just the availability of postal votes, although I am sure he is absolutely right to point out that that is a factor.
My hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Jonathan Lord) expressed some concerns about voting in person and impersonation. He asked whether there should be polling station checks. Again, that will be covered by the report of my right hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar. I mention in passing that some recent photos appeared in the press of President Obama turning up to cast his vote in the American presidential elections—no prizes for guessing who he was voting for—and I was struck by the fact that he had to sign for his ballot paper when he got there. That is a different system from the one that applies in Northern Ireland that was referenced by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). None the less, there are models elsewhere in the world that we could look at, always with an eye to the fact that we do not want to discourage legitimate voters from turning out.
The Minister makes a good point about another way of doing things. Of course, we sign for our postal votes, and that is checked. There are 9 million postal voters, with 15% to 20% of the electorate now choosing to vote by post. If that 20% is being checked, why should the signature and validity of the ballot at the polling station not be checked?
The hon. Member for Peterborough (Mr Jackson) has rightly outlined examples of voter fraud that, if true, should be addressed with the full force of the law. Does the Minister agree that any future electoral law should have the right mix of safeguards and things to encourage voter participation? Will he please look into the possibility of credit reference agencies providing extra data to boost voter registration?
The hon. Gentleman mentioned this issue to me in oral questions earlier today. I encouraged him then and encourage him now to provide me with further details of his proposal. I am very interested at looking into that matter. It is potentially useful. There are many other sources of data that can be used to verify registrations, and we want to look at them all if we can. In the modern digital world, it seems a sensible avenue to explore.
At the root of the debate, we have a contradiction. We have modest levels of electoral fraud cases—I have already given everyone the figures for the past three or four years—but we can all see that, in principle, our processes and controls are pretty light-touch. We can all think of theoretical ways in which someone might be able to indulge in electoral fraud, were they so minded. In all our minds, there will always be a nagging concern that even though there may not be that many electoral fraud cases, there could be a cohort of people that we are not aware of taking advantage of this relatively trust-based system. That is the concern behind this debate and the ongoing public debate. To summarise it in a sentence, absence of evidence is not necessarily evidence of absence. That is our concern.
I therefore want to reassure everyone that there is no complacency in the Government on this tremendously important issue. A number of people have mentioned in the course of the debate that there is some self-policing, because political rivals will naturally keep an eye on each other. That is good, but we have also heard examples of loopholes or potential flaws in the process that would allow some things to go unremarked, even where there is a strong political culture of rivalry. We should clearly consider applying the precautionary principle here, provided that we can do so with the satisfactory light touch.
What have we done so far? There has been the introduction of individual elector registration. ID is therefore verified and it makes inventing people a great deal harder. It also makes family influence and patriarchy less important. We have also made postal votes a great deal more controlled. People now have to put a signature on a postal vote, and every single signature is matched up when that postal vote is opened. There was an initial problem in Scotland, which the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard) mentioned, but the system is now running much more smoothly. There is much greater security around polling stations too, which is essential, particularly when one reads some of the judgments about what was happening in Tower Hamlets.
Finally, I want to back up the point that a number of colleagues made about voter education. One of the most fundamental ways of guarding against undue influence, whether spiritual, familial or any other form, is to educate people from the earliest moment that their vote is genuinely secret and that they are absolutely entitled to tell anyone, whether they are a family member, religious leader or politician, to take a hike if they want to find out how someone voted or to influence the way they are planning to vote. That is an attitude of robust independence that we need to inculcate in all our young people and, if necessary, all adults too. With that, I will sit down to let my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough have a final word. I reiterate that if anyone wants to make any further comments to my right hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar, his door is open.
I thank the Minister for that helpful reply. I support the direction of travel. The Cabinet Office and the Electoral Commission are going in the right direction, but I do not think light-touch will do any more. We need more academic research and more legal sanctions. In particular, we need a proper response to the Electoral Commission’s report from last year.
I have two extra things to say. First, we perhaps need to think about disaggregating ward results in general elections. In the United States, that allows people to see obvious examples of electoral fraud. We have never done that in this country, but there has never been a reason not to, because we have ward results in local elections. Secondly, I would like an undertaking from the Minister that when the Pickles review is produced for the Prime Minister, we will have, if not a debate, then at least a statement in the House, so that we can ventilate all these important issues that we are all committed to tackling. With that, I appreciate the opportunity to raise such vital issues.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered electoral integrity and absent votes.